Most of the books I write are set at least partly in the past, so my reading often takes me back—back into social history and into novels and poems written or set historically. It can be research, but since these are also the type of books I love, work becomes a pleasure. (I try not to think about the pleasure being partly work.)
As a writer, I’m preoccupied with why things happen. How did we get where we find ourselves? We all know the answer sometimes lies in the moment. Impulse. But of course we often act out of long-term beliefs, traumas or societal expectations, whether we’re fulfilling them or fighting them. These eight books by Canadian authors have taken me deep into the question of "Why?"
I also love the way they let me eavesdrop on other lives, real and imagined, since eavesdropping is surely part of reading, too.
Cecil Foster is a distinguished academic, and his meticulously-researched book about the lives and struggles of Black railway porters in Canada is both complex and moving. Foster has written a social history that relates stories from the lives of individual Black Canadians, and at the same time examines their collective fight against Canadian racism.
Among them is Charles Ernest Russell, a porter who suffered from a common professional problem: he worked such long hours, he often nodded off on the job. “This lack of sleep was so chronic,” Foster writes, “that the porters joked among themselves that instead of sleeping car porter, they were, indeed, sleepy car porters.”
Yet Russell moved beyond his job into community service. He was also chairman of the railway Welfare Committee that heard grievances from porters, who often faced false accusations of dereliction of duty. Among other things, they could be accused of growing too “familiar” with white female passengers. They also noticed the complaints piling up the closer they got to retirement. As Russell saw, it was an attempt by the railways to fire workers shortly before they were eligible to draw their pensions, an injustice he fought bravely.
Foster’s book is full of similar stories and thorough analysis, and builds a picture of Black Canadian history too often missing—before now—from the books.
Men in the Off Hours, by Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s wonderful work of poetry and prose is a reminder to me of how strange the past would look if we were able to go back there, and in some ways how familiar. It’s also an examination of how unfamiliar our own pasts can become as they recede, and the people we love fall out of time, as Carson’s mother does in a short riven essay at the end of the book. Carson is, of course, a professor of Classics and comparative literature as well one of our most brilliant poets. She takes the long gaze, so in this fragmented examination of history she can write, “Here lies the refugee breather/Who drank a bowl of nowhere.”
In this poem, it’s not entirely clear whether she’s writing about a refugee of 2,000 years ago or today. I can’t read Carson at night. Too unsettling. But she’s as illuminating by day as the sun.
Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro
When she first published this book of interconnected stories in 1971, Alice Munro was looking back to the time of her adolescence in southwestern Ontario twenty-five years before. Fifty later, Lives of Girls and Women has become a work historical fiction, a moving exploration of an earlier time and a girl growing up there. Yet the trick is—and I can never figure out Munro’s technique—the stories remain utterly contemporary.
I first read my now-battered paperback copy as a nineteen-year-old in university. At the time, I identified with Del Jordan, the young protagonist, amazed to find an ordinary Canadian girl appearing in literature. I loved Del and loved the book, but I didn’t re-read it for nearly twenty-five years. When I did, I realized the book was almost as much about Del’s mother, Ada, as it was about Del—the lives of girls and women, after all—since I was roughly Ada’s age at the time. Now I read it again every year or two for the pleasure of both its familiarity and freshness, meanwhile continuing my futile attempts to try to figure out how on earth Munro does it.
Washington Black, by Esi Edugyen
Washington Black is a more recent historical novel, although it’s also more harrowing to read. (Not that Munro can’t be harrowing.) The story follows Washington Black from his childhood as a slave in Barbados through his fantastic flight from injustice—which, in fact, he can never escape. In taking Washington aloft in a balloon, on board a ship, deep down in the Underground Railroad and north to the Artic, Edugyen shows an astonishing range. To a writer’s eye, she also quietly braids an enormous amount of research into her text.
Edugyen is a technically brilliant writer. She’s more than that, of course, but it’s a great pleasure to read her prose. “The sea was as smooth as a wooden table,” she writes. That’s a sentence I pulled out at random, and I could harvest others from every page. One of the biggest gifts of fiction is the way it can show us what it’s like to be someone else facing vastly different challenges. Yet while I was reading Washington Black, I often found myself thinking about the way our lives can seem as strange to ourselves as they do to other people.
Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone), by Kamal al-Solaylee
Kamal al-Solaylee has a much-anticipated new book coming out this fall called Return. But since I haven’t read it yet, the best I can do is recommend his social history from five years ago, Brown. It tells the stories of people around the world who are brown, and what it means to be not just themselves, individuals, but also a metaphor and commodity to so many others.
The book grows from Solaylee’s background as a journalist. Through his research we meet people like Oliver in the Philippines, whose life was changed by his mother’s unexpected death from cancer. Aged only fifteen, Oliver stepped up to help his family, quitting school to get a job. After working for two years as an assistant in a beauty parlour, he was forced to look for more lucrative work abroad and headed to Japan. There, he found employment at the crossroads of entertainment and sex work, creating a drag show and starting hormone therapy before being caught by Japanese authorities and deported.
In many ways, Oliver’s is the ordinary story of a migrant seeking a better life elsewhere. But there’s nothing ordinary about his life, and throughout, Solaylee’s book is a reminder that when necessity meets imagination, the extraordinary can occur.
Five Wives, by Joan Thomas
In this Governor-General’s Award-winning novel, Joan Thomas explores a branch of the culture I grew up in. Five Wives is the fictionalized re-telling of the incursion of Protestant missionaries into the territory of the Waorani people of Ecuador—not in the nineteenth century, but in 1956. The small group of evangelicals sets out to contact and convert the Waorani, who prefer to avoid Western culture and live within their own traditions.
I was brought up in the mild and hopeful United Church, but in Thomas’s suburban zealots, I recognized people I knew as a child. In Five Wives, they’re in extremis: isolated, in danger, and enormously ignorant of their arrogance and presumption. Despite opportunities to change, many refuse. As the novel moves toward the present day, it’s fascinating to watch their lives look increasingly antique. A fresh past, a superannuated present: I’m not sure there’s really anything linear about time.
What Strange Paradise, by Omar El Akkad
I didn’t mean to do this, but I’m recommending three books by three male former journalists who all worked for The Globe and Mail. Cecil Foster and Kamal el-Solaylee began their careers at the Globe, and Omar El Akkad worked there until fairly recently. One difference. Foster and Al Solaylee’s books are non-fiction, while What Strange Paradise is a novel, a short, plainspoken and very moving work that has been longlisted for the Giller Prize.
El Akkad’s novel tells the story of a boy shipwrecked on a small island, and I kept hearing distant echoes of Shakespeare’s Tempest as I read. Amir is a nine-year-old Syrian migrant trying to find that elusive commodity, safety. He’s rescued by an island girl, and in taking him on, teenage Vänna is seeking something, too. Meaning, perhaps. Certainly not safety, which she could easily find, as most of us do, by averting her eyes.
The story is set in the modern world, yet it brought me back to Anne Carson’s lines: “Here lies the refugee breather/Who drank a bowl of nowhere.” I sought out Carson’s book as I read What Strange Paradise, half remembering the reference, and was reminded of the circles and eddies of life. Or perhaps the whirlpool.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue writes both historical and contemporary fiction, and I’m currently enjoying her new novel, The Pull of the Stars, set during the last pandemic. I also loved Slammerkin, which takes place in the eighteenth century. But I thought I would recommend Donoghue’s Room, which is one of her contemporary works, since so many women friends tell me, “I can’t bring myself to read it,” and I think they should.
Room is the story of a young woman locked up for years in a tiny room where she is repeatedly raped by her captor. Yes, harsh. But the novel is told in the voice of the woman’s young son, Jack, the boy she conceived with her captor, and it’s permeated with love. Ma, as the boy calls his mother, keeps Jack alive and whole, and finally manages to steal him back into society.
The best contemporary fiction can—and probably should be—as disorienting as a historical work. Room succeeds in forcing us to look deeply at our world, and to question how things got this way. As well, just maybe, as implying ways they might change.
A richly atmospheric portrait of women’s agency and the timelessness of love, Time Squared explores the enduring roles of rights, responsibility, and devotion throughout history.
Robin and Eleanor meet in 1811 at the British estate of Eleanor’s rich aunt Clara. Robin is about to leave to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and her aunt rules out a marriage between them. Everyone Eleanor knows, including Robin, believe they’ve always lived in these times.
But Eleanor has strange glimpses of other eras, dreams that aren’t dreams but memories of other lives. And their time jumps start as their romance deepens. Robin fights in the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, in Vietnam and Iraq. Meanwhile, Eleanor struggles to figure out what’s going on, finally understanding that she and Robin are being manipulated through time.
Who is doing this, and why? Arriving in modern times, Eleanor sets off to confront the ones she discovers are behind this—chessmasters playing her like a pawn. Eleanor’s goal? To free herself to live out her life on her own terms.
Time Squared examines the roles women are forced to play in different centuries, the power they’re allowed, the stresses they face—and what this does to their relationships.
Comments herecomments powered by Disqus