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Andrea Curtis: The Weight of Water

A fantastic list of books in which water features as a defining force, by the author of new novel Big Water

Book Cover Big Water

Big Water is Andrea Curtis's debut novel, and she marks its release with this fantastic list of books that will make for riveting dockside or beach reading. 


Big Water is a young adult novel inspired by the true story of one of the worst shipwrecks in the history of the Great Lakes. The main characters are the only two survivors, teenagers Christina and Daniel, stuck in a lifeboat, corpses at their feet. But the water—horrible and beautiful all at once—is equally a protagonist. Its fickle moods and outrageous power shape the plot and arc of the other character’s experience. 

My own life has also been defined by this water. Georgian Bay, known as the sixth Great Lake, is the landscape of my heart and imagination. I have grown up there, sung into the wind, swum, paddled and skimmed over its surfaces and explored its depths. I love and fear it in equal measure.

In a country like Canada, so rich in water (inland and coastal), it’s hardly surprising that many other writers have also felt its formidable weight on their psyche. The list below includes both adult and young adult novels that treat water not as incidental colour or backdrop, but as a defining force in their character’s lives.


Book Cover Lost Girls

Lost Girls, by Andrew Pyper 

Pyper’s first novel (before he became Canada’s official master of literary horror), Lost Girls continues to haunt me nearly 20 years after it was published. Set in a Northern Ontario town on a storied lake, it is ostensibly about a crime—two girls have disappeared, their bodies as yet undiscovered. A local schoolteacher has been charged with the girls’ murder and a young lawyer comes up from the city to defend him. But the book is also very much about the town, the lake and the people who’ve been formed by a place that is lousy with old prejudices and ancient ghosts. 


Book Cover The Iconoclast's Journal

The Iconoclast's Journal, by Terry Griggs (originally published as Rogue's Wedding)

I’ve long been an admirer of Terry Griggs’ writing. Her language is precise and evocative, even magical. Her talents are on full display in The Iconoclast's Journal, a novel set on the shores of Lake Huron. It opens with a young man on his wedding night chased around his hotel room by ball lightning. Already uncertain about marriage, he takes it as a sign and leaps out the window, jumping aboard an ill-fated steamship. The only survivor of the shipwreck, he washes ashore near a lighthouse and grasps at this perfect opportunity to start all over again. But his jilted bride, full of fury and vengeance, has another plan altogether. This book is a delight.


Book Cover This Accident of Being Lost

This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

The poems and stories in this collection by the award-winning Nishnaabeg writer and storyteller are genre-bending, playful and knife sharp. Water plays a supporting role in many of the pieces but takes on the lead in the short story, “Big Water,” featuring a sad, texting-obsessed Lake Ontario, known as Chi’Niibish (big water). Niibish is “full, too full, and she’s tipsy from the birth control pills, the plastics, the sewage, and the contraband that washes into her no matter what.” She wants to send a message to the oblivious people who abuse her, so she spills over her shores and floods Toronto, occasionally sending the narrator a text: “ARE THEY GETTING IT?”


Book Cover Summer Gone

Summer Gone, by David Macfarlane 

Bay, the main character in this tender and occasionally funny first novel, is an outsider in the privileged enclaves of Ontario cottage country. But like many outsiders, he understands the machinations and secrets of this world of old family cottages, regattas, canoes and tradition better than anyone. The book is both a meditation on the illusory nature of summer, and a sly poke at a generation of cottagers who have managed to both fetishize the wilderness and destroy it at the same time. 


Book Cover This One Summer

That One Summer, Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This graphic novel makes my heart ache (in a good way). I’ve read and reread it, scouring the images and words trying to understand why it touches me so deeply. I’m hardly alone—it has been showered with awards, including the Governor General’s. But I think for me it’s because it manages to capture that moment in a girl’s life when she is on the edge of becoming—not quite girl, not woman—and everything is thrown into the air. Even the beach and the lake where friends, Rose and Windy, have spent each summer together seems changed in light of the transformations in their bodies and their lives. 


Book Cover Unspeakable

Unspeakable, by Caroline Pignat

Ellie is a stewardess aboard the Empress of Ireland, an oceanliner plying the Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1914 when she falls for Jim, a sullen fire stoker who seems always to be scribbling in a little black journal. But when the ship collides with a Norwegian vessel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sinks in less than 15 minutes, it looks as if Jim is one of the 1000 lives lost. Terrorized and bereft, Ellie agrees to a journalist’s cruel ploy: if she tells him her story, he’ll give her her beloved’s journal one page at a time. With strong characters, great pacing and rich detail, multiple award-winning author Pignat keeps the mystery going right to the end.


Book Cover Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, by Shyam Selvadurai

The acclaimed adult author takes on YA fiction in this lyrical gay coming-of-age story set in monsoon season in Sri Lanka circa 1980. Amrith is 14 years old and an orphan living with a loving auntie and uncle when a worldly male cousin comes to visit from Canada. That summer proves momentous for Amrith, as he attempts to come to terms with the complicated feelings he has for both his dead parents and his handsome cousin. The tumultuous monsoon ocean mimics the storm inside as Amrith tries to make sense of the sadness, anger and ambivalence he feels.


Book Cover The Landing

The Landing, by John Ibbitson

Set on the shores of Ontario cottage country during the Depression, The Landing is the story of a boy named Ben, who longs to play the violin but is stuck on his uncle’s farm, destined to spend his days working for the rich people who summer in the area. When he meets a wealthy woman who shares his love of music, he thinks he may have found his ticket out. But poverty—not to mention the stormy waters of Muskoka—aren’t quite so easy to escape. Winner of the Governor General’s Award in 2008, it’s recently been reissued.

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