John Delacourt—whose latest novel is Butterfly—celebrates the unique sensibility of Ottawa writers in this fantastic and wide-ranging recommended reading list.
It was more than 16 years ago, at an event celebrating the work and life of Ottawa’s John Newlove, that I first discovered the depth and diversity of Ottawa’s writing community (it was at the Manx Pub—where poet David O’Meara tends bar). I was new to the city but realized, as the readings began that night, this was truly a city where a writer could work, find readers and even, every now and then, a little inspiration. The following list is my submission of the evidence.
Asylum, by André Alexis
Long before his Giller-winning 15 Dogs, author André Alexis spent close to a decade writing Asylum, a novel set in late-1980s Ottawa. The novel’s main character and narrator is a bookseller who joins a group of would-be intellectuals and civil servants called The Fortnightly Club. One of its members, a high-ranking bureaucrat serving Mulroney’s cabinet, aspires to implement the best of the club’s intention—and pretensions—through a vision for a prison whose classical design will embody “the idea of order, the force of law, the way to community.” Asylum is an ambitious, and often gently comic, novel of ideas that reveals an Ottawa of quiet, stubborn eccentricity behind the drab, modernist jumble of office towers in the old logging town.
Sons and Fathers, by Daniel Goodwin
This is a story about how three ambitious Montreal friends end up walking the Ottawa corridors of power, including the highest office in the land. Though published in 2014, it uncannily predicts the current government: Allan is the young new Prime Minister, charming and adept at only 40. But faced with scandal and his own over-arching confidence, friendships and loyalty are sorely tested. It’s a story that is, like Ottawa, both meditative and gripping.
The Ability to Forget , by Norman Levine
Levine has for too long been damned by the faint praise of being a Canadian “writer’s writer.” He is a deceptively spare stylist whose stories in The Ability to Forget, particularly “In Lower Town” and “My Karsh Picture,” paint a vivid portrait of the city’s hardscrabble neighbourhoods of just a couple of generations ago.
The Vicinity, by David O’Meara
David O’Meara’s poems in The Vicinity bear down into the texture of 21st-century Ottawa and make it new. “A red brick wall, framed / in timber beams and mortar, / collects the last gold of November warmth / on this lit morning, / It hasn’t rested, though idle all these years. / A brick wall is stoic toil.” “Stoic toil,” as anyone surviving a winter up here will tell you, could be an Ottawa mantra.
Garbo Laughs, by Elizabeth Hay
To wander down a quiet Ottawa street on a winter’s night is to see, through the curtains of every window, not the flickering light of an open fire but of a large TV screen. Hay’s Garbo Laughs captures that escapism of cinematic nostalgia where one “could write a treatise on the effect of VCR’s on romance and marriage: to bring the unattainable into your home, to watch it repeatedly, to fast-forward to the hot spots again and again, to press the zinger of romance until you were well and truly electrocuted ...”
Sussex Drive, by Linda Svendsen
Svendsen is known more for her book of short stories Marine Life, but with Sussex Drive, the BC author goes where few have successfully gone; she has written a deft political satire, focusing on two very public women, the wife of the Prime Minister and the Governor General, while managing to interweave darker strands of intrigue involving Canada’s involvement in the issue of the Afghan detainees.
A Deadly Divide, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Ottawa does not come to mind as a prime location for noir fiction but the winter light can conjure deep shadows in the hands of an author attentive to the cultural and class divides that exist just streets from Parliament Hill. Khan, with a PhD in international human rights law, centers her police procedural around a shooting at a mosque just across the river in Gatineau for a provocative and moving examination of just how dangerous and deadly these divides can become.
13, by Mary-Lou Zeitoun
Novels that tackle growing up from the perspective of an adolescent girl risk skimming over well-trodden ground, but Zeitoun’s debut—featuring an Ottawa teenager obsessed with John Lennon and yearning to leave staid ‘80s Ottawa for New York—is still fresh almost 20 years since its publication.
Lucien and Nataa might have slipped toward love, if her past in Sarajevo hadn’t caught up with her. Nataa finds work modeling for a painter in Toronto, but he is murdered. Nataa disappears that night, running for her life. Her vanishing is connected to the discovery of a video, secretly filmed in a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war. Butterfly is a novel that charts a controlled descent through the dark legacy of war and the underbelly of the global art scene … into a world ruled by a desperate hope for impossible redemption.
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