In his review of Christine Fischer Guy's debut novel, The Umbrella Mender, Philip Marchand calls attention to the story's atmosphere, its complex characters, and all the questions the narrative refuses to answer neatly. The Umbrella Mender is a novel with tremendous depth, with nothing at all careless in its construction. And its author's skills as a careful reader and skilled writer are clearly in evidence here with a list of books that informed her during the years she was writing her book.
Samuel Johnson said that a writer “will turn over half a library to make one book.” Some writers say that they can’t read fiction while writing, and while there were points during the six years of writing The Umbrella Mender that I felt too suggestible to read other fiction, I was always reading. Other books were companions, interlocutors, mentors, and time thieves. Here’s a selection of my favourite non-fiction, poetry, and novels from that time period.
Six Months in Sudan, by James Maskalyk
Toronto physician James Maskalyk began blogging about his experiences in Abyei, Sudan while working with Médecins Sans Frontières. Deeply atmospheric and affecting, the book that resulted chronicles his tenure in Sudan with emotional honesty and startling poeticism. “I went to Sudan, and am writing about it again, because I believe that which separates action from inaction is the same thing that separates my friends from Sudan. It is not indifference. It is distance. May it fall away.”
The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge
I began reading this book as research, as my novel opens just after my main character has suffered a stroke, but was quickly absorbed by Doidge’s history of the hopeful science that is neural plasticity. Until the early 1960s there was no support for the idea that the adult brain could change, though Doidge names Rousseau as the first proponent of the idea. (In 1762 he proposed the term “perfectibilité” to describe a specifically human plasticity or malleability that distinguishes us from animals.) Paul Bach-y-Rita was one of the first contemporary physicians to pursue it, spurred on by the experience of helping his elderly father recover from a debilitating stroke.
The Peregrine, by JA Baker
This slim memoir is a poetic anatomy of obsession that chronicles the author’s winter-long vigil in the British fenlands, a birder gone mad in pursuit of perfect knowledge of a falcon pair. At the end of the quest, he has abandoned his human self and assumed the consciousness of a falcon: “A hawk’s kill,” he writes, “is like the warm embers of a dying fire.”
Jeremiah, Ohio, by Adam Sol
A road novel in poems that features the doomed prophet Jeremiah and his sidekick, the bread-truck-driving, grad-school-dropout Bruce. Sol riffs on the Biblical Jeremiah to create a modern oracle who is as engaging as he is delusional, whose song is, in the words of the hapless Bruce, “warped music/something necessary and unique.”
Effigy, by Alissa York
York’s second novel, the story of the human detritus of religious fanaticism, was a beacon to me for what historical fiction could do. Dorrie is a teenaged taxidermist, a kind of indentured servant and fourth wife of a fundamentalist Mormon at the time of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, and her craft stands in as an apt metaphor for the challenge of breathing literary life into events that have passed. Just as Dorrie hits her stride, finding poses for a family of wolves, York draws the novel to its cataclysmic conclusion, slipping the skins of historical events over the forms she has prepared for them. The novel brims with curious detail, the yield of an exceptionally fertile imagination. York’s writing is artful, sinuous, and fresh, with each page giving up surprising metaphors and phrasings. “A thing of air now, the blaze rises, taking hold in feathers and fur. Beast after beast catches. Glass eyes fill to brimming with light.”
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
The sprawling story of a resilient woman brought from Africa as a slave, this novel is compulsively readable, long on humanity, utterly believable. The plight of Aminata and her steadfast refusal to simply accept what fate handed her will stay with me a long time. I particularly liked the way Hill never tells us how to feel, in spite of the fact that the love he feels for his character is evident on every page.
Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay is a master storyteller, and one of the hallmarks of his work is shifting viewpoints. In Under Heaven, his recasting of the downfall of the 9th century Tang dynasty, it’s the outsider poetic vision that guides the narrative: when his father dies, Shen Tai decides to spend his two years of mourning at a remote lake, burying unburied bones from the last great war. It’s a symbolic act that foreshadows his refusal to enter the next war, and a metaphor for the way art-making must reckon with the past. “The river flows, the dancers finish their dance. If the music starts again it is starting anew, not repeating itself.” Epic in scope, intimate in scale, and operatic in tone, it’s a novel preoccupied with the ceaseless rhythm of time, and its gorgeous final lines bring that home.
Annabel, by Kathleen Winter
This debut novel explores the coming of age of a hermaphrodite in a Labrador community ill-equipped for that question, and Winter shows an appetite and skill for dwelling in uncertainty. It’s less a novel about chromosomal anomaly or traditional gender roles than it is about human potential. “Everyone is a snake shedding its skin,” a close friend tells Annabel/Wayne. “We are different people through all our lives.” Stripped of the trappings of gender, Winter asks, what are we?
Consumption, by Kevin Patterson
I put off reading this book for a long time because of the subject-matter overlap with my own. Set when TB treatment had long been underway in the north, it reckons with its effects almost 20 years after my novel is set. It’s better than anything I've read on the current situation in the north (fiction or non) and offers considerable insight and intellect. Patterson, a doctor himself, has thought deeply on both the problems of medicine and contact, writing elegantly, unflinchingly, and with a thorough understanding of what's at stake. “When changes occur in the way we eat and fight and raise our children that are truly important,” he writes, “then they always show up in the way we die.”
Christine Fischer Guy's debut novel, The Umbrella Mender, was published in September 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in journals across Canada, has been nominated for The Writer's Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey prize, and is forthcoming in The Austin Review. She is a fiction critic for The Globe and Mail and contributes to Ryeberg.com, The Millions, and the LA Review of Books. She is also an award-winning journalist. christinefischerguy.com
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