9 Canadian Writers Who Run with the Night

Instructor is a new novel by Beth Follett, founder and publisher of Pedlar Press, a Canadian literary house. Her first novel, Tell It Slant, a retelling of Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood, met with critical acclaim. Her poetry, prose and nonfiction work have appeared in BrickBest Canadian Poetry 2019, and elsewhere. She lives in St John’s, NL.

*****                     

The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson

I love Watson’s book first and foremost for breaking literary ground in Canada. Her subjects include marginalization, poverty, murder, suicide, destruction.

About the book: In spare, allusive prose, Sheila Watson charts the destiny of a small, tightly knit community nestled in the BC Interior. Here, among the hills of Cariboo country, men and women are caught upon the double hook of existence, unaware that the flight from danger and the search for glory are both part of the same journey.

In Watson's compelling novel, cruelty and kindness, betrayal and faith shape a pattern of enduring significance.

*                      

Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, by Jan Zwicky                

Grief is Zwicky's subject. Grief and tenacity. "The precision of her language and the finely honed lyric in her verse maintain a lightness and energy that allows an internal momentum to gather in the reader.” —ellipse magazine

About the book: Songs for Relinquishing the Earth contains many poems of praise and grief for the imperilled earth drawing frequently on Jan Zwicky's experience as a musician and philosopher and on the landscapes of the prairies and rural Ontario.

*                                 

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson

One of my top five most loved works, a work that is both novel and poetry, with the greatest opening line ever: “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.”

About the book: Award-winning poet Anne Carson reinvents a genre in Autobiography of Red, a stunning work that is both a novel and a poem, both an unconventional re-creation of an ancient Greek myth and a wholly original coming-of-age story set in the present.

Geryon, a young boy who is also a winged red monster, reveals the volcanic terrain of his fragile, tormented soul in an autobiography he begins at the age of five. Geryon escapes his abusive brother and affectionate but ineffectual mother, finding solace behind the lens of his camera and in the arms of a young man name Herakles, a cavalier drifter who leaves him at the peak of infatuation. When Herakles reappears a year later, Geryon confronts again the pain of his desire and embarks on a journey that will unleash his creative imagination to its fullest extent. By turns whimsical and haunting, erudite and accessible, richly layered and deceptively simple, Autobiography of Red is a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is and unleashing his creative imagination to its fullest extent.

*                     

Love Enough, by Dionne Brand                   

Something that catches me deep in the throat, reading Dionne Brand, is the question of how 1980s and 1990s political activism has been made smaller and much more personal in the 21st century. My resistance to the hegemonic system has been a public one through a commitment to publish marginalized stories. This public commitment must very soon end, and I will be left with my own voice, writing in the wilderness.

About the book: In Love Enough, the sharp beauty of Brand's writing draws us effortlessly into the intersecting stories of her characters caught in the middle of choices, apprehensions, fears. Each of the tales here—June's, Bedri's, Da'uud's, Lia's opens a different window on the city they all live in, mostly in parallel, but occasionally, delicately, touching and crossing one another. Each story radiates other stories. In these pages, the urban landscape cannot be untangled from the emotional one; they mingle, shift and cleave to one another.

The young man Bedri experiences the terrible isolation brought about by an act of violence, while his father, Da'uud, casualty of a geopolitical conflict, driving a taxi, is witness to curious gestures of love and anger; Lia faces the sometimes unbridgeable chasms of family; and fierce June, ambivalent and passionate with her string of lovers, now in middle age discovers: "There is nothing universal or timeless about this love business. It is hard if you really want to do it right." Brand is our greatest observer—of actions, of emotions, of the little things that often go unnoticed but can mean the turn of a day. At once lucid and dream-like, Love Enough is a profoundly modern work that speaks to the most fundamental questions of how we live now.

*                                 

Book Cover All My Puny Sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

The relentless exploration of shame, suicide, depression, death. Toews' project is heroic and Toews my hero for how she borrows and amplifies material from her own life and the lives of people she loves.

About the book: You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.
 
But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.
 
All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.

*                     

The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, by Martha Baillie

I think Jade Colbert said it best: Martha Baillie is turning the tables on the European, who has taken the place usually held by the "native" as specimen of study. —Jade Colbert, The Globe & Mail

About the book: The story of a young man who escapes the claustrophobia of small-town Germany by travelling to Canada, where he sets out on a long solo hike into the interior of Baffin Island. Soon time begins to play tricks on him. Yanked from the twentieth century and deposited in the twenty-first, Heinrich lands in a disorienting, digital Present where a computer-nimble Pangnirtung teenager befriends him. She lives with her grandmother who rents Heinrich a room. | "Capacious, capricious, mischievous, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel moves like a quantum experiment, defying boundaries of time, place, chronology. Fluid as light itself, animated by startling imagery, vivid and peculiar characters, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is a hymn to brooding memory, the enduring need to inhabit story, and a haunting insistence upon endless possibilities within possibility. That is to say, hope." —Gina Ochsner

*                                             

Ru, by Kim Thúy                                           

Fragmented, nonlinear, heartbreaking over and over again. A brave debut.

About the book: Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow—of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy.

*         

Augustino and the Choir of Destruction, by Marie-Claire Blais      

A masterpiece of originality. This is the third book in Blais's trilogy, with These Festive Nights and Thunder and Light.

About the book: In Augustino and the Choir of Destruction literary legend and three-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award Marie-Claire Blais delivers the third volume in the prize-winning series (These Festive Nights, Thunder and Light, Augustino and the Choir of Destruction, and Rebecca, Born in the Maelstrom) acclaimed as one of the greatest undertakings in modern Quebec fiction.

Augustino and the Choir of Destruction is set on an island in the Gulf of Mexico that is home to the full spectrum of humanity: the rich, the poor, the powerful, the humble, artists, criminals. With her unique, signature use of punctuation, Marie-Claire Blais manages to brilliantly show in one flashing stroke men and women; victims and tormentors; child kamikaze pilots and petty thieves from Bahama Street; Charles, a great poet cut down by AIDS; Cinderella, a transvestite prostituting himself to a customer at the Porte du Baiser saloon; Caroline, an artist and photographer who has seen all the hidden treasures of the world; and Augustino, a clairvoyant child-writer. These individual destinies combine in Blais' vision to form a single harmonic texture.

*                     

Book Cover A Beauty

A Beauty, by Connie Gault   

The most radical thing a woman can do is reinvent herself. Connie Gault’s Elena Huhtala is a protagonist for the feminist ages.

About the book: In a drought-ridden Saskatchewan of the 1930s, self-possessed, enigmatic Elena Huhtala finds her self living alone, a young Finnish woman in a community of Swedes in the small village of Trevna. Her mother has been dead for many years, and her father, burdened by the hardships of drought, has disappeared, and the eighteen-year-old is an object of pity and charity in her community. But when a stranger shows up at a country dance, Elena needs only one look and one dance before jumping into his Lincoln Roadster, leaving the town and its shocked inhabitants behind.

What follows is a trip through the prairie towns, their dusty streets, shabby hotel rooms, surrounded by dry fields that stretch out vastly, waiting for rain. Elena's journey uncovers the individual stories of an unforgettable group of people, all of whom are in one way or another affected by her seductive yet innocent presence. At the centre is Ruth, a girl whose life becomes changed in unexpected ways. She and the girl Elena, distanced and apart, form a strange bond that will come to haunt the decades for them both. Written in luminous prose, threaded through with a sardonic wit and deep wisdoms, A Beauty is at one time lyrical and tough, moving and mysterious, a captivating tale of a woman who, without intending to, touches many lives, and sometimes alters them forever.

*

About Instructor:

When Ydessa Bloom’s husband dies in a Cessna crash in a mid-Ontario lake, she rents a cottage at that lake, without really comprehending why, and stays for three months. There she meets three people who will influence her life dramatically—her landlady, a yoga teacher, and a precocious eight-year-old boy named Henry Rattle.

Years later, at the age of twenty-five and reeling from personal tragedy, Henry seeks Ydessa out once again, and they find themselves alone on the day of the Northeast blackout, drawn into an encounter that will change them both.

In Instructor, Beth Follett magnificently follows the natural tendencies of the human mind to dart and drift, to leap and eddy, creating an utterly compelling narrative at once patient and enthralling. Through grief, wonder, and introspection, Instructor captures the fluidity of the self, carrying readers away in the current of Follett’s inescapable prose.

March 1, 2021
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