The Road to Atlantis is Leo Brent Robillard's fourth book, a novel about a family trying to learn to live with grief and cope with tragedy. Quill and Quire has called it "a multi-generational family saga that zips along at the pace of a thriller."
In this list, Robillard shares eight underrated titles that deserve a second glance.
Take the title tongue-firmly-in-cheek. These are truly fine authors who have written truly fine books. Some of the books on this list were nominated for awards—some won them—and all received critical accolades. But have you read them? Well, you should.
Thus, “The Short-Changed List”—Canadian novels that deserve a second glance. Perhaps their small marketing budgets did not manage to crack the national consciousness; maybe you lost them in the shuffle of the 200,000 other books published in Canada that year. In any case, they are here because sometime in the last decade, or so, I read them and I liked them. You might, too.
Interference, by Michelle Berry
The suburbs of Parkville, which could be anywhereville, are the backdrop to Berry’s quietly menacing Interference. Four households jockey for the reader’s attention here, each hiding characters with their own distinct set of phobias and foibles—characters in whom the reader may comically or tragically find himself. This is the new normal. Interference is a tale of middle-class anxiety and the isolation we encounter amidst the security of manicured suburbia.
Why it’s on the list: Berry captures the quiet desperation of her suburban characters in this claustrophobic, deftly plotted novel. Interference seethes with sinister possibilities.
Just Beneath My Skin, by Darren Greer
Jake MacNeil returns to the impoverished town of North River to spring his son from the desperate childhood he's spending with his mother. This is easier said than done. Jake’s violent past comes back to haunt him in this gritty narrative. Former friends intend to do him harm. Soon Jake is embroiled in a race against time, against history, and one against hope.
Why it’s on the list: A sense of dread descends like a curtain over this novel the deeper you delve into it. And yet, like a bystander at an accident, the reader cannot turn away. Greer pulls no punches.
Inside, by Keneth J. Harvey
Inside is the story of Myrden, a wrongfully convicted criminal. Released through newly minted DNA technology, Myrden tries desperately to adapt to life on the outside. But not only justice, it seems, has failed him. Cruelty and meanness exist everywhere he turns—among his friends, among his family. The reader is lead through the cloistered annals of Myrden's mind toward an inevitable conclusion, a twisted chance at catharsis and redemption.
Why it’s on the list: With terse, muscular prose, Harvey allows violence to seethe just beneath the surface while the reader follows, captivated by the Greek tragedy unfolding before him.
Big Man Coming Down the Road, by Brad Smith
Big Man Coming Down the Road is a modern twist on King Lear—only the role of Lear is played by the recently deceased Everett Eastman. The crusty industrialist leaves each of his children a share of his empire: an auto parts company, a distillery, and a small publishing house. But there are conditions. In comes the will’s executor, former NHL-star Will Montgomery, and an equally crusty country music singer by the name of Jonah Peck. The fallout, or shakedown, makes for impeccable reading.
Why it’s on the list: This could be the recipe for madcap silliness, but it isn’t. This is a cast of sympathetic characters and convincing villains put through the paces of finely crafted plot. A wholly entertaining and thoroughly engaging read.
The Reckoning of Boston Jim, by Claire Mulligan
Boston Jim Milroy (if that is his real name) is a protagonist of Byronic proportions. He is haunted by memories that are all too vivid, and by some he cannot quite recall. His body is indelibly and mysteriously scarred, and, he believes, cursed as well. He is a former Hudson’s Bay man, and now a lone trapper subsisting at the edges of a burgeoning colony in a sort of self-imposed exile.
Why it’s on the list: The writing is lush and vivid in its detail. It carefully evokes a world precariously poised between old and new, civilization and savagery. It is a world in flux, and oftentimes out of balance. In fact, Boston Jim’s struggle for reckoning is a microcosm for the larger problems of humanity, and, as such, his tragic attempt to restore that balance.
The Culprits, by Robert Hough
Hank Wallins, a former merchant sailor cum lonely computer operator, lives through a near-death experience. Does his life flash before his eyes? Does he realize the futility of his existence? Does this realization send him packing to the Himalayas to tackle Everest? To the Amazon? No. But he does begin searching www.FromRussiaWithLove.com hoping against all odds to find that certain special someone to fill the perceived hole in his life.
Why it’s on the list: Woven by one of the most ingenious and fascinating narrators in recent history, this novel juggles the madcap with the sober, the tragic with the comic. It flirts with the melodramatic as often as it plays with the improbable, without ever actually crossing either line. Its humour and wit give weight to its eventual calamity, and its voice—full of the sing-song qualities of Slavic constructions—is as endearing as a Dr. Seuss fable.
The Bone Sharps, by Tim Bowling
There are essentially three stories operating within this volume, concentrating on three different characters and several different time periods. We meet Charles Sternberg in 1876 at the outset of his career as a paleontologist, scouring the chalk lands of Montana for fossils. We track his progress into 1896, through the death of his only daughter, and that of his benefactor and mentor Professor Cope. And we see him again in 1916, still bent over the badlands, searching—this time in Alberta—haunted by his past and seriously ill. We also follow the story of Scott, Sternberg’s one-time protégé—now locked in the trenches of Europe burrowing for survival rather than discovery—and Lily, labouring with Sternberg in 1916, writing to Scott and loving him from a distance. We also follow Lily toward the end of her own life in 1975, on a strange personal journey.
Why it’s on the list: Few writers can wield language with the facility and acuity of Bowling. With him, even the most mundane and trivial become surprising and new. In Banff, the "mountains were black, inlaid with blue-green, and surrounded the town like the sides of a tea-cup." Sitting in a restaurant, Lily thinks "the men’s voices buzzed like flies, and she waved quickly at her ears to rid herself of the sound."
Coureurs de Bois, by Bruce MacDonald
William Tobe, a visionary economics student from the University of Ottawa, drops off the radar following graduation and resurfaces in Toronto as the recently-paroled Cobb’s unlikely partner in crime. They are prophets, both of them, in their own way. People who can "guide and see." Together they subvert the system like 17th century coureurs de bois—the earliest venture capitalists to visit North America—turning their newly created fortune into vast tracks of Costa Rican rainforest, with the ultimate goal of selling carbon bonds in some distant dream economy.
Why it’s on the list: Set in a seedy stretch of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Coureurs de Bois is a novel where the insane speak oracular truths and a female Christ figure—complete with virgin birth—attempts to kill herself, shocked by the "absolute horror of the human condition." The characters here are full-blown and fascinating. The pacing is immaculate. The humour black, intelligent, and just as likely to reinforce a stereotype as deflect one.
Following the coast on their summer vacation, the Henrys stop at the beach to break up the monotony of their road trip. Matty and Nat build castles in the sand as Anne and David take turns minding the children. A moment of distraction, a blink of the eye, and the life they know is swept away forever.
Like shipwrecks lost at sea, each member of the family sinks under the weight of their shared tragedy. All seems lost but life is long. There are many ways to heal a wound, there are many ways to form a family, and as the Henrys discover, there are many roads to Atlantis.
Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley's Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini's Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier's Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.
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