A slow, creeping madness...

The Honey Farm is Harriet Alida Lye's debut novel, billed as "Vintage Margaret Atwood meets Patricia Highsmith" and "a slyly seductive debut set on an eerily beautiful farm teeming with secrets." In this recommended reading list, she shares books that have informed her work and/or make fine companions to The Honey Farm.

It seems that Canadian literature is rife with stories of isolated characters and their slow creeping madnesses. And yes, some of them do end up engaging in intimate relations with bears...

*****

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

One of my all-time favourite books that I push onto everyone. The writing is conversational, hilarious, deeply moving; the characters are so vivid I still think of them often. Miriam Toews handles the seriousness of her subject matter with grace and love, and through the curious, fumbling, lovable narrator she is able to explore the many ways in which mental health affects a whole family. The love between the two sisters is so beautifully rendered, and the tragedy of how one wants to die and the other wants her to live is what drives the plot of this novel. And actually, The Honey Farm is in many ways similarly a story of a young woman struggling with a mental health problem compounded by religion and isolation, without a support network or any landmarks of familiarity. 

*

The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood

My (brilliant) editor in Canada, Whitney Moran, has been calling The Honey Farm "Vintage Margaret Atwood crossed with Patricia Highsmith," so I figured I should read more vintage Margaret Atwood. This is her first novel, and I could not love it more. The voice is frank and funny and weird and immediately drew me in, and it feels like it could have been written today. The synopsis line "It is the story of a young woman whose sane, structured, consumer-oriented world starts to slip out of focus" could also apply to The Honey Farm, except instead of consumer-oriented I might change it to religiously-oriented. The way that Marian questions her identity and purpose, especially in contrast with the gendered expectations of the time, are struggles Silvia also faces. I also just loved picturing 1960s Toronto, and could vividly imagine every location Atwood wrote about, even though the city was never explicitly named. 

*

I'm Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

This novel starts out so relatable—I found myself identifying with so many of the details the characters discuss—so that when the tension crescendoes and your sense of balance gets thrown off, it's as destabilizing as if it's happening to you. This pivot, all within the tight time frame of the novel, is pulled off masterfully and continues to surprise right until you reach the last page. My agent gave me this book after I had already sold my novel and I can see why she thought it would resonate: Reid writes that uncomfortable tension, where you can sense something is wrong and you want to find out what, perfectly. 

*

Bear, Marian Engel

A book about a woman in isolation who begins to lose the sense of lines that distinguish one thing from another. Maybe that's a delicate way of saying "a lady who has a sexual relationship with a bear," but Lou's exploration of herself, her boundaries, and the laws and borders of the natural world feel plausible and profound (and definitely disturbing) without crossing the line into kitschy. I mean, without often crossing the line. 

*

Surfacing, Margaret Atwood

Another Vintage Margaret Atwood—her second novel—and this was the first Atwood I ever read. The narrator is unnamed and her past unfolds as she searches for her missing father in the desolate bush of rural Quebec. The story feels clouded, somehow, vague and compelling, and the intimacies that are built up between the friends—who you soon learn hardly know each other—is both confusing and realistic, and is also how the group of "artists" at the residence of the honey farm feel about one another. Density of time and isolation of place really do change how you experience things, and this is one of the things I found so compelling in Surfacing. This unfamiliarity breeds danger, and over time, in this book as well as mine, people come to reveal their true selves. One of my best friends recently bought me the first edition of this book, a marbled cover with a huge, beautiful portrait of young Atwood over the whole back cover, and it's such a precious object. 

*

Book Cover Blizzard of One

Blizzard of One, Mark Strand

This collection of poems is so vastly profound and philosophical while also being incredibly rooted in the personal. There's this one line I have in my head always, that I think is something Silvia—at the darker part of this novel, as she starts to struggle more and more with her sense of what is real and what reality even means—would also obsess over: "To stare at nothing is to learn by heart/ What all of us will be swept into." Mark Strand was born in Prince Edward Island and about five years ago, shortly before he died, I had the opportunity to speak with him in Paris. I asked him whether or not he identified with the Canadian literary movement despite having grown up mostly in America. He responded essentially that where you're born is essentially an accident, and not really relevant unless you're born in a war-zone, in which case you have bad luck. But then he went on to say that in fact, when he writes about landscape, and imagines a landscape, he pictures the Canadian Maritimes. I thought his initial reaction was so funny, and I enjoyed seeing him work through his statement to discover what he actually felt. 

*

Whylah Falls, George Eliott Clarke

A book I read in a university English course that deeply marked me. The language is rich as late summer honey and the words feel so deeply rooted in the land of the Annapolis Valley in which the book is set. It's funny: in my memory, this book is prose, but it's actually a collection of poetry. Many sections are prose poems, but it's the sense of place and character and story that made me experience and remember it more like a novel. The a classicism and Biblical allusions very much affected me too—"He considers Whylah Falls to be New Eden... He indulges in Latin because it is as mysterious as God." God, I just want to swim in these pages. 

*

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, Alice Munro

This was the first Alice Munro collection I read, and the experience transformed me. Munro brings details that seemed so ordinary and familiar from my own Southern Ontario world but she magnifies them, inspects them closely, and exalts them until they gain their own meaning. The way she renders stories from her material made me feel differently about my own world. I think about the story "Material" a lot, and "How I Met My Husband." I used to edit and publish a literary magazine called Her Royal Majesty, and I was able to obtain the rights and publish the very first short story Alice Munro ever wrote—at age 16, under the name of Alice Laidlaw, for the University of Western Ontario's undergraduate journal. That story works through so many of the themes she would continue to explore for her career. 

*

The Substitute, Nicole Lundrigan 

In many ways, The Substitute is also a coming-of-age story that deals with mental health, isolation, and a slow, creeping madness. My editor Whitney recommended this beautiful novel to me too, saying "if The Honey Farm is imbued with a sticky-spring buzzing cacophony, The Substitute is a cool winter wind that seeps into your bones." The dual points of view in The Substitute keep you guessing right until the end, and there are also some eerie similarities between the two narrators—at times you wonder if they are one and the same. I think the reader might experience similar questions  between the characters of Silvia and Cynthia in The Honey Farm, which also offers a pluralistic, and yet still limited, perspective that keeps the reader questioning until long after the book is finished. The Substitute has an aura of mystery and unknowing that is unsettling, but ultimately deeply satisfying for the reader, and this is something that I was determined to do with my novel. I love talking to readers about what they think happens at the end—some aren't sure who or what to believe, who or what to trust, and some are deeply convinced in one particular narrative. I wanted that tension to linger with people; I wanted to write a novel that could contain uncertainty. There’s a sense that "Truth" is constantly just out of reach.

*

About The Honey Farm

The drought has discontented the bees. Soil dries into sand; honeycomb stiffens into wax. But Cynthia knows how to breathe life back into her farm: offer it as an artists' colony with free room, board, and "life experience" in exchange for backbreaking labour. Silvia, a wide-eyed graduate and would-be poet, and Ibrahim, a painter distracted by constant inspiration, are drawn to Cynthia's offer, and soon, to each other.

But something lies beneath the surface. The edenic farm is plagued by events that strike Silvia as ominous: taps run red, scalps itch with lice, frogs swarm the pond. One by one, the other residents leave. As summer tenses into autumn, Cynthia's shadowed past is revealed and Silvia becomes increasingly paralyzed by doubt. Building to a shocking conclusion, The Honey Farm announces the arrival of a bold new voice and offers a thrilling portrait of creation and possession in the natural world.

April 16, 2018
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