The Birth Yard embodies a sense of place that I, as a woman, have always felt inside. I tried to recreate that sense—the internal anxious pang of walking home alone at night with keys between my knuckles, or that feeling of fearfulness when I turned on the news and was told my body was not mine by white right-wing politicians, etc.—into an external reality, "the Den," a cult that controls women’s bodies, fertility, their social and intellectual lives.
In the book, The Den is a dark place, under the guise of pleasantries—isolation from the hustle and bustle of the mainstream world. Sable knows it like the back of her hand. During the writing process, I even drew out a map of her home and of Ceres, her designated Birth Yard, to envision how I could interact with a setting that doesn’t actually exist.
Each of the selected books on my reading list similarly captures a sense of place, and these are places that have touched me as a reader, from childhood to present time. I tried to list them in the order I remember reading them.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
If this is too on the nose as far as writing a sense of place goes, oh well! Not only do Lucy Maud Montgomery’s descriptions of the fictional town Avonlea capture the quiet, ethereal setting of Prince Edward Island, they also make up a character of sorts. The blossoming, wintering, harvesting scapes of the land through time and season mirror Anne Shirley’s own physical and emotional terrain as she navigates abandonment, girlhood, self-love and determination. I once visited Montgomery’s homestead when I was a girl. Seeing physical spaces where a book close to my heart was penned will always be one of the most beautiful experiences I have had.
Actually, in a more personal way related to The Birth Yard, I still can’t walk by Kafka’s coffee shop on Main Street in Vancouver without thinking about how much of the novel was created there. Discussing setting can get kind of meta that way . . .
Covering Rough Ground, by Kate Braid
This 1991 poetry collection was the winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and was published a year before I was born. I believe Kate Braid’s work was later recommended to me by a teacher at my high school. I was really drawn to the narrative poems about a woman-identifying speaker working construction—a career seen as the ultimate experience of a “man’s world.” In the poems, the grit of the pavement and dirt are so vivid—conditions are tough, sawdust-heavy. Days are long. The grit of the patriarchal landscape is equally exhausting, draining. Days feel even longer. From the poem “Metamorphosis”: “But where are the clubhouses of the women? Where can a carpenter put up her boots / slam her hardhat to the counter / and roar / like a lion in heat?”
Strange Heaven, by Lynn Coady
Strange Heaven shakes me to my core emotionally and always has. The exploration of mental health and trauma coating an entire family’s world in regret, abuse and addiction is done thoughtfully, patiently in this novel. Bridget Murphy’s mind acts as a sort of setting as she works through carrying a pregnancy to term at such a young age and putting the baby up for adoption. The Maritime settings of both Cape Breton and Halifax enrich the novel with their local jargon, sea-scented air and cold, wet winter, leaning on humour when seen through the lens of Bridget’s friend, Alan, a newcomer from Ontario. This humour infuses the novel with hope for Bridget to find wellness and happiness and people who support her.
Y, by Marjorie Celona
I lived in Victoria for four years during university and currently commute there for work, so I know it well; I love the worn-in, cozy, delicately urban appeal that the city and surrounding area have. Marjorie Celona’s gut-wrenching and beautiful novel Y instantly takes readers to the streets of downtown Victoria as they follow Shannon, a young girl abandoned at the YMCA as an infant. The prose is highly lyrical but true to the youthfulness of Shannon’s voice. “Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wine glass. The question we ask over and over. Why? My life begins at the Y.” That opening is still one of my favourite novel introductions of all time in its playfulness and sense of wonder establishing Shannon’s character.
Sodom Road Exit, by Amber Dawn
Amber Dawn’s second novel, Sodom Road Exit, follows Starla Martin on her return home to her small Ontario town of Crystal Beach in the year 1990. The atmospherics in the setting here are wildly stimulating—with the rust of the abandoned amusement park; the lager and secrets on the lips of locals; the gauze of the supernatural layering this story, in themes of haunting and desire and mystery. Amber Dawn’s gift for writing authentic, unique characters and sharply punctuated, voice-driven dialogue is something I cherished when reading this novel two years ago. The era of the early ’90s is captured with precision and attention to detail. Crystal Beach itself is both ordinary—in the way most of us from small towns know—and fantastical. It’s a place where ghosts turn the Ferris wheels, turn hearts, a place where in the middle of hardship and trauma, community is forged among the most unlikely people.
Little Fish, by Casey Plett
Little Fish fell into my lap in the melancholic month of February, two years ago. What makes this book fantastic is its portrayal of queer and trans women friendships. The bonds between the protagonist, Wendy, and her roommates and friends, Lila, Raina and Sophie, are some of the most authentic relationships I have ever read in novel form. The landscape of their relationships, the depth of them, rise above the bitterly harsh winters of Winnipeg, the transphobia and sexism of their day-to-day world, and their multi-generational ponderings of their own senses of self. Like in the fiercest and deepest friendships, these characters keep one another safe, loved, fed, laughing, accountable, encouraged, and they do not shy away from honesty. The strength of their bonds cuts through the icy cold of the setting like an intensely beautiful weighted blanket, or a tender, kind embrace from someone a reader might hold close in their own lives.
Dear Current Occupant, by Chelene Knight
Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant is one of the most place-oriented, heartfelt reads I have experienced in a while. The themes of identity, what home is and how those two concepts can and cannot intersect are all explored in the thralls of the ’80s and ’90s in East Vancouver. The exploration of form in the book makes for a gripping reading experience, as letters, essays and poems work in tandem to construct for the reader a mental map of Knight’s neighbourhood, while also encouraging the reader to reflect upon their own personal connections to where they grew up and what that means to them now. The memoir is a book invitational to the idea of place-based reflection for the reader and welcomes them into the physical and emotional landscape that shaped Knight. It’s a generous book. Dear Current Occupant takes the concept of a home and then revisits, refurbishes and renovates one’s unique memories to explore a deeper meaning of that concept and the surrealness of how time moves forward.
I Am Still Too Much, by Brandi Bird
Brandi Bird is a Saulteaux and Cree 2-Spirit poet whose lyricism bends the muscle of poetry to reveal truth in the landscapes of family, Indigeneity, the Prairies, connection to the self, disconnection to the self, loss and lovingness. I had the privilege of publishing this debut chapbook with Rahila’s Ghost Press. Bird’s poems leave the reader feeling held by the work, warm like an embrace, but with a contemplative sense of unknowingness—raising questions of who we are and how we connect to the land as either settler or Indigenous. How we connect to the land that is our own bodies. The descriptions of Selkirk, Manitoba, haze out of the book as if its pages hold light—as if the book itself is a candle—because the sense of place is so sensory, dynamic and fragrant.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, by Megan Gail Coles
Why am I so drawn to dismal Canadian winter settings? Maybe because they bring out the most human qualities in characters—a boredom, a restlessness, a desire to find comfort. Small Game Hunting... is so compelling, set in St. John’s, particularly at a restaurant called The Hazel. There is toxicity to the atmosphere as well as a warmth for these characters, especially Iris, in the throes of a love triangle–type situation but also in the throes of her own self-loathing, tiredness and depression. Within the confines of a small town, there are larger social commentaries made in the novel’s piercing, direct address on issues of race, class, sexism and homophobia. The book even begins with “This might hurt a little. Be brave” as a content warning, asking readers to open their minds to the world of Small Game Hunting..., the circumstances in which its women characters are abuse survivors, and the hardships that come with that. The voice is an absolute avalanche of quick-paced dialogue embedded right in the prose. There is a loudness to the work that commands the reader’s attention, a loudness that makes this book echo inside you after reading it.
A debut novel for readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Girls, The Birth Yard is a gripping story of a young woman’s rebellion against the rules that control her body
Sable Ursu has just turned eighteen, which means she is ready to breed. Within the confines of her world, a patriarchal cult known as the Den, female fertility and sexuality are wholly controlled by Men. In the season they come of age, Sable and her friends Mamie and Dinah are each paired with a Match with the purpose of conceiving a child. Sable is paired with Ambrose, the son of a favoured Man in the Den. Others are not so lucky.
In their second trimester, girls are sent to the Birth Yard, where they are prepared for giving birth and motherhood, but are also regularly drugged and monitored by their midwives. Sable is unable to ignore her unease about the pills they are forced to swallow and the punishments they receive for stepping out of line. Too many of the girls, including Mamie and Dinah, have secrets and it is impossible to know whom to trust. When Sable’s loyalty is questioned and her safety within the Den is threatened, she must rebel against the only life she has ever known—the only life she has been designed for.
Mallory Tater weaves an intricate narrative, equal parts suspense and action, while twisting contemporary social anxieties to dizzying extremes. She meticulously deconstructs the intricate relationships between womanhood, government and the female body. A startling and important debut novel, The Birth Yard echoes Margaret Atwood’s dark and cautionary classic The Handmaid’s Tale. But this is no dystopian world; there is no totalitarian government. The Den exists now.
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