My novella Unlocking is mainly about navigating the secrets we decide to keep and the secrets we decide to share. Louise Till is shocked by the sudden death of her parents (which may have been by suicide) and her world is further upended by the inheritance of their hardware store and legacy. In her grief, she begins to collect copies of the keys she cuts for her neighbours, but doesn’t plan to use them. She eventually gives in to temptation and is propelled into a story of blackmail, break-ins, and secrets that do not belong to her.
At the heart of my novella and in each book on this CanLit list is a sense of desire or a yearning (for belonging, identity, sex, adventure, closure, etc.) that propels the characters forward and into unfamiliar places that are rich with literary potential.
Disappearing in Reverse, by Allie McFarland
Described as a feminist piquaresque, McFarland’s debut novel masterfully weaves the past and the present (and all spaces in between) in a young woman’s search for answers. Devin died five years ago after getting an infection and losing her arm, but she is spotted in a photo posted online in the present-day narration. This mystery propels a road trip that is equally hilarious, haunting, and erotic (which any good piquaresque should be) as she searches answers that may not come.
Arborescent, by Marc Herman Lynch
Lynch’s novelistic debut is a multi-vocal Canadian Gothic that is as surreal as it is beautiful. An apartment building connects Nohlan Buckles (a man who may be turning into a tree and is excreting leaves), Hachiko Yoshimoto (a young woman attempting to stage a kabuki which may be more realistic than she anticipated), and Zadie Chan (a young woman who seems to be uncontrollably producing doppelgangers). Throughout the novel, these characters’ stories intertwine in the hallways and stairwells of their apartment building in Mohkínstsis until they reach a startling and grotesque climax that leaves them all changed.
?bédayine, by Kaitlyn Purcell
Purcell’s Metatron Prize winning debut blurs the boundaries between poetry and prose, often occupying the space between the two on the same page. The novella focuses on Ronnie, a young Indigenous woman in Edmonton. Through the narration of dreamscapes, drug hazes, affairs, and friendships, this novella shows the surrealness of isolation and of identity seeking in Alberta.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Noemí Taboada receives a disconcerting letter from her cousin, Catalina, in which she writes that her husband, Virgil Doyle, is trying to kill her. Out of concern for her cousin’s safety, Noemí travels to High Place, the Doyle’s house in El Triunfo, to investigate and to try to bring her cousin home. When Noemí arrives and meets the Doyle family, she discovers that her fear goes much deeper than Catalina’s letter and instead goes deep into the heart and history of High Place.
The Body of the Beasts, by Audrée Wilhelmy, translated by Susan Ouriou
The members of the Borya family are lighthouse keepers in coastal Quebec living in relative isolation—until Noé arrives. She barely speaks, her manners are wild, and her clothes are torn. She marries into the family and gives birth to seven children, but lives in a separate cabin from the rest of the family. The most intriguing of Noé’s children is twelve-year-old Mie, who can occupy the bodies of animals and shape-shift when she pleases. In her different forms she discovers her own body, its sensuality, and her desires.
Polar Vortex, by Shani Mootoo
Mootoo’s novels always keep me on the edge of my seat, but Polar Vortex pushed me through in only a few hours with the intensity of a thriller. Priya and Alexandra have been in a relationship for a number of years and have left their inner-city existence for a life off-grid in a country-side town. When Prakash (an old friend of Priya’s) finds her online and sends her a message on twitter, she surprises herself by inviting him to visit their home and stay the night even though this will cause tension between her and Alex. The novel opens with Priya’s recurring sex dream and from there, the book is a slow burn with a gradual release of revelations and clues.
Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline
Joan’s husband, Victor, has disappeared. They had an argument, he left the house, and hasn’t been seen since—until Joan stops at a revival tent in a Walmart parking lot and discovers that Victor is the one preaching, but he goes by Eugene Woolf and has no recollection of Joan or their marriage. Empire of Wild is a brilliant novel about the Rougarou, a werewolf type creature in Metis stories that will definitely haunt you long after the book ends (there is even a Rougarou performing a strip tease if you weren’t already convinced).
Bear, by Marian Engel
This is by far the oldest book on this list, but it’s also one of my all-time favourites. Lou (who shares the same first name as my protagonist) is a librarian sent to work on documents left on a remote estate where she finds a bear chained in the backyard. She befriends the bear and what ensues is a strangely sensual and wholly surreal book about isolation, desire, and what we leave behind.
Louise Till, mother of two, has inherited her father's hardware store after her parents' unexpected deaths. She begins to cut copies of her customers' keys for herself, each one a talisman against grief and the terrible guilt she feels at not having realized that her parents were desperately unhappy.
Louise could use the keys, but she doesn't. Not until her life is overturned, again, when her marriage falls apart. Lou gives in to temptation, letting herself into Euphemia Rosenbaum's home. What follows is a tale of blackmail, break-ins, an unsolved mystery, and more secrets than Lou ever wanted to know.
Lou must confront not only the lives of her neighbors, but the unspoken truths of her family and the doors within herself for which there are no keys. Told over the course of one long winter, Unlocking is a poignant and penetrating exploration of grief, community, family, and the secrets we keep, even from ourselves.
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