Irena Karafilly's new novel, The House on Selkirk Avenue, is a mesmerizing trip along the streets of Montreal and across decades of the experience of its protagonist, who has returned to the city of her youth. What happens when the places where we once belonged—and the people we once belonged to—don't belong to us anymore? The books in Karafilly's list for us, as her novel itself does, gesture towards answers to these questions.
Every now and then, a stranger asks me where I'm from and I'm never sure how to answer. I was born in the Russian Urals (neither Europe nor Asia), but crossed several borders while learning to walk, talk, read, and write. Most of my life has been spent in Canada, but, unlike many of my colleagues, I have no clear cultural or religious identity; no place I can claim as my spiritual home. It is not surprising, then, that narratives of loss and dislocation have always engaged my deepest sympathies. I am interested in the stories of characters displaced by life-altering events, but also in those who, for one reason or another, seem to have been "misplaced" by the vagaries of fate. Here are nine of my favourite Canadian books, listed in the approximate order in which they were read.
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
Each of the four principal characters in A Fine Balance is some kind of refugee in Indira Gandhi's turbulent India. The most memorable are two tailors who are fleeing an iniquitous caste system and political upheaval and who find refuge in a Parsi widow's home. Mistry shares with us not only his main protagonists' private misfortunes but the shocking realities of India's street life. The result is a complex, vibrant tapestry, illuminated by the author's deep compassion and his intense interest in life's big questions. One of the remarkable achievements of this profoundly moving novel is Mistry's ability to find humour and grace within the brutality, and unwavering hope amid the urban ruins.
DeNiro's Game, by Rawi Hage
Harrowing but utterly unforgettable, De Niro's Game revolves around two young men trapped by Lebanon's civil war, struggling to survive amid Beirut's mayhem and carnage. The Lebanese capital emerges as a disintegrating city whose Muslim and Christian men are out to annihilate each other, but succeed only in displacing innocent citizens and shattering any semblance of normalcy or hope. The two friends are forced to contemplate a bleak future with only three available options: suicide, surrender to a life of crime, or exile. De Niro's Game is a bitter, powerful portrait of a desperate nation, with little to redeem the grim reality other than the author's passionate narrative and the brilliance of his writing.
Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvadurai
What can be more unsettling than the dawning realization that one's truest self belongs in an alluring but forbidden world? In Selvadurai's coming-of-age novel, we meet a Sri Lankan who, even as a child growing up in the 1970s, is sadly alienated from the rough-and-tumble world of ordinary boys. Despite his father's efforts to make a man of him, Arjun must learn to accept his homosexual identity. His profound inner havoc is mirrored by the larger strife between Sri Lank's Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Arjun is a Tamil but he's in love with a Sinhalese boy, a relationship that enables the author to depict both personal and political prejudice, and the inevitability of eventual violence. Narrated with candour and humour, this is a powerful and beautifully-written novel, as interesting for its exotic setting as for its insights into the human heart.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue's remarkable novel, Room, is, among many things, the ultimate metaphor for captivity. Through a 5-year-old's beguiling narrative, we become acquainted with a tiny but astonishingly stimulating world, cunningly constructed within the four walls of a garden shed. Abducted at 19, the abused young woman has given birth to her tormentor's child but nonetheless showers him with unmistakable love. Her ability to create a happy environment for her son under the grimmest of circumstances is the most stirring aspect of this extraordinary story. So satisfying is this intimate realm that, when the nightmare is finally over, there is helpless yearning for the abandoned prison. It is one of the novel's ironies that the trauma of dislocation is the price the child must pay for his mother's liberation. We feel the terrible weight of this maternal knowledge, as we do every aspect of her harrowing experience. This is a tale of slowly-unfolding torments and profound tenderness; a story of meaning scratched out of the direst circumstance.
The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari
Although there is no shortage of fine Hebrew fiction, most of it has been written by Israeli authors with Ashkenazi ancestry. In her first collection of short stories, Tsabari penetrates the lives of Israeli Jews who originate in Arab countries and who, all too often, are regarded as second-class citizens. "We are Arab in a way," says one of the characters. "Arab Jews." Although the stories are not necessarily set in the Middle East, they all revolve around Israeli issues, all dealing with questions of identity, belonging, displacement. There is the prevailing friction between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, but also between secularists and traditionalists, between fierce patriots and ambivalent emigrants. Tsabari is impressively skillful in illuminating both internal and external conflicts and does so with passion, compassion, and unflinching insight.
The Evening Chorus, by Helen Humphreys
Helen Humphreys, too, deals with dislocation and loss, but her main interest lies in the psychological changes which war brings to the lives of three British protagonists. James, a young pilot shot down by the Germans, is incarcerated in a POW camp; his bride, Rose, left behind in an isolated cottage, embarks on an unexpected affair with another airman; his sister, Enid, bombed out in London, is forced to join Rose in the country. There are gradual revelations and new, unexpected, bonds, but the deepest solace is ultimately to be found in nature. Humphreys' elegant prose is here exquisitely applied to the realm of flora and fauna. The three protagonists' respective pursuits are inspired by sheer circumstance, but the joys are profound. "Who would have thought that she would long for the war years, that they would be the height of happiness?"
The Other Side of the Bridge, by Mary Lawson
This beautifully understated novel is set in a fictional Northern Ontario community, whose rural folk struggle through the Depression, war, and war's aftermath. Except for a scheming charmer named Jake, Lawson's characters are all notably decent, modest Canadians, each deeply troubled, each feeling secretly isolated. The beautiful Laura is married to the wrong man; Ian, the doctor's son, is meant to be in university; even Arthur, Jake's plodding brother, is meant to be fighting at the front rather than toiling on the family farm. Lawson is marvellously successful in depicting inner as well as outer landscapes, and manages to elicit compassion for all but the coddled, manipulative Jake. Jake escapes in search of a more glamorous life but, interestingly, his character and actions only underscore the deep humanity of this stoic community, and that of its creator.
Ru, by Kim Thúy
Kim Thúy's first book is an exquisitely meditative novel written by a Montrealer who arrived in Canada as one of Vietnam's boat people. Her fragmented reminiscences alternate between a life of singular privilege in Saigon and the bewildering demands of immigrant life. The novel is spare, yet, in some 140 pages, succeeds in conveying the complexity and trauma of a life disrupted by the Communist takeover, the challenge of surviving dire conditions in a Malaysian refugee camp, and finally, the search for identity in a small francophone community. Resolutely resisting sentimentality, Thúy's narrative shifts between images of abysmal squalor and scenes of astonishing beauty. The immigrant experience is by now all too familiar, but Thúy's fictionalized memoir is nothing short of enthralling: a deeply moving testament to the triumph of the human spirit over the capricious assaults of history.
Stranger, by David Bergen
Bergen's Iso Perdido seems fated to lead a simple existence as a caretaker at a Guatemalan fertility clinic frequented both by natives and well-heeled foreign women. Her peaceful life, however, is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of a married American doctor, who impregnates Iso before returning to his privileged life back home. Unable to conceive, the doctor's American wife contrives to kidnap Iso's newborn, a brazen venture that forces Iso to abandon the comfort of her familiar world in search of her lost infant. Her illegal journey to the U.S. is fraught with trials and danger, dramatizing not only Iso's maternal resolve but the shocking gulf between rich and poor, the influential and the powerless. This is a novel about inequality, injustice, and cultural displacement. An eloquent, unsettling, beautifully-written book.
Irena Karafilly is an award-winning Montreal writer, poet, and aphorist, the author of several acclaimed books and of numerous stories, poems, and articles. Some of her stories have been anthologized and/or broadcast, winning literary prizes such as the National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Award.
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