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Melissa Barbeau: Where Magic Meets Science

The author of novel The Luminous Sea on books that ask if there is space left for wonder in the world. 

Book Cover The Luminous Sea

The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau, manages to be gorgeous right down to sentence level, with incredible, evocative descriptions, and yet also be fast-paced and plot-driven, so difficult to put down. Like the creature whose wondrous existence lies at the centre of the story, The Luminous Sea is not quite like anything else you've seen/read before, and it's also absolutely enthralling. Read on to find out more about it, and also for Barbeau's recommendations of other books where magic and science meet. 


The Luminous Sea imagines an outport Newfoundland that is almost—but not quite—recognizable. The fishing village of Damson Bay abuts an ocean that is degrees warmer than it has been historically and the sea has turned strange. Phenomena normally found in warmer climates emerge along the North Atlantic coast. Bioluminescent tides emit their eerie light along the shoreline, fantastic creatures are brought to the surface.

The Luminous Sea imagines the discovery of a fairy tale creature in a scientific world where unique genetic code is considered treasure. The book asks whether magic and science can exist in the same space, and if there is any space left for wonder in a world that rushes to claim ownership of every new thing.

Told from the points of view of three different women, the book also asks how women fit in the world—whether in a male-dominated scientific community or small-town Newfoundland. It is about the relationships between women and how they support one another (or don’t), especially as they interact with a wholly unexpected sentient creature that is so certainly female.

Magic and wonder are at the forefront of so many cultures. Here are some Canadian books that imagine magical possibilities and others that tell stories grounded in the natural environment. And as I look over the list, I realize almost every one of them features a strong female presence —women’s voices with the power to change their world.


Book Cover Galore

Galore, by Michael Crummey

A whale washes up on the beach and a man—naked, mute, albino, stinking of fish—emerges from its belly. This multi-generational epic, full of ghosts and grudges and superstition, is the godfather of Newfoundland magic realism, and Michael Crummey makes no secret of how strongly he’s been influenced by the work of Gabriel García Márquez. It recalls to me the Newfoundland storytellers I grew up with whose stories were maybe true, maybe not. And Crummey captures perfectly the sing-song dialect of Paradise Deep.


Book Cover Brown Girl in the Ring

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

Equally fantastic but with a decidedly different setting, Brown Girl in the Ring imagines a post-apocalyptic Toronto in which the downtown core has been cordoned off. Those with the means to do so have fled the city while the poor and disenfranchised are confined by roadblocks and checkpoints. Crime and exploitation are rampant and it falls to Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother Gros-Jeanne, to defeat a powerful duppy (a ghost or spirit) that is inflicting death and destruction everywhere it goes. An edge-of-your-seat book all about Afro-Caribbean culture and magic in the GTA.


Book Cover Curiosity

Curiosity, by Joan Thomas

Based on the true story of the she who sells seashells by the seashore. Mary Anning was an 18th century Englishwoman who made a living selling fossils in the town of Lyme Regis and whose paleontological discoveries included the first ichthyosaur and nearly complete examples of plesiosaurs and pterosaurs. Credit for all her work was given to men. Written by Manitoba writer Joan Thomas, this novel tells the story of a woman’s place in the field of science in what was truly a man’s world.


Book Cover The White Bone

The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy

Told exclusively in the voice of elephants, The White Bone follows an extended family of pachyderms as they flee drought on the Africa savannah. Innovative in its use of point-of-view and complete with footnotes that delve deep into the imagined rituals and customs of elephants, this book bowled me over in the best possible way.


Book Cover Split Tooth

Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

This first book by Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq is about a young girl growing up on the Arctic tundra in Nunavut. It’s about isolation and trauma and loneliness but also strength and magic and the power of the North. This book is so big of heart it will mark your spirit sing.


Book Cover Green Grass Running Water

Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King

A hydroelectric company plans to flood an Alberta reserve to make way for a mega dam project. Hawkeye, the Long Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and a green Pinto break free from a mental institution and make their way north for the Blackfoot Sun Dance. People on the reserve negotiate a life that lies somewhere between tradition and modernity and Coyote (tries) to swoop in and save the day. Written by Cherokee writer Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water is hilarious and lovely and formally breath-taking. A story by a master-storyteller about the power of story in the modern world.

Book Cover Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome

Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, by Megan Gail Coles

I don’t know if you can write a truly Newfoundland story without hearing Newfoundland voices talking in your ear. Reading Eating Habits... is like listening in to the next table over at Leo’s Fish and Chips in downtown St. John’s. This book sounds like what happens when people who spend their lives singing and telling tales try to have a regular conversation. Coles’ rollicking way with language—and the way she captures a particular Newfoundland female voice—makes me wild with happiness.


Book Cover Down By Jim Long's Stage

Down by Jim Long’s Stage: Rhymes for Children and Young Fish, by Al Pittman

This classic Newfoundland children’s book is a favourite in my house. It follows the adventures of every kind of creature living under Jim Long’s stage including lumpfish and mussels, Tom cods and smelt, and the famous sculpin named Sam who claims to be the “ugliest fish in the sea.” A sweet book that instills curiosity in young and old about what might be down there under the waves.


Book Cover Bee Time

Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, by Mark L. Winston

One of the questions I’m frequently asked by people who’ve read The Luminous Sea is if I have a background in science. The answer is no—in my day job I teach music and English—but I am an insatiable reader of nonfiction, especially about the natural world. This one is about bees and the symbiotic relationship between humans and of the most important organisms on the planet. A perfect example of how we are still hopelessly intertwined with the natural world.


Book Cover The Luminous Sea

About The Luminous Sea:

A team of researchers from a nearby university have set up a research station in a fictional outport in Newfoundland, studying the strange emergence of phosphorescent tides. And Vivienne, a young assistant, accidentally captures a creature unknown to science: a kind of fish, both sentient and distinctly female. As the project supervisor and lead researcher attempt to exploit the discovery, the creature begins to waste away, and Vivian must endanger herself to save them both. 

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