It’s always darkest before the dawn, the saying goes. Growing up in the suburbs, I sensed early on that our lives were profoundly disconnected from the land in which we lived. Culturally, this techno-industrial age seemed in real trouble then. Now, as the world situation has grown evermore grave, I’ve been searching for stories that dig down, that look squarely and openly at the roots of our troubles, and in so doing, offer another way forward. In a time of widespread unravelling, perhaps the point isn’t to avoid the darkness, but rather, as mythologist Martin Shaw has urged, to navigate in this underworld and discover what we need to learn about ourselves. After all, seeds live in darkness before they come to life.
As a writer, my work has circled around the consequences of our rootlessness in place and time. In Night in the World, I wanted to bear witness to the catastrophes of our age, while imagining how modern urban people might yet find their way into healing relationships with the natural world. Might find their way home.
Below are books that I cherish for how they imagine resilient responses to crisis, viable ways of being in community, often drawing on old wisdom and myths for guidance.
Two-Strand River, by Keith Maillard
Of the many novels I read in my 20s, Maillard’s has stayed with me like a wonderful vision. This strange, fairy-tale-like book was the first I’d found in which the writer imbues the natural world of the present (right in Canada!) with mystical force. Set in Vancouver, the book follows two characters struggling with gender identity. In a larger context, their struggles are rooted in urban isolation, disconnection from nature, and spiritual malaise. Cherished as a cult-classic of gender-bending, Maillard’s story is ultimately about coming into alignment with forces greater than ourselves. Everything in this story world, from lakes to crows, carries its own wisdom and significance.
Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice
When civilization comes to a standstill, a northern Indigenous community finds itself facing a new possibility—and new threat. I love how Rice invigorates the apocalyptic genre by approaching it from an Indigenous perspective: in the context of colonial history, "the apocalypse" has already happened to Indigenous nations. Where typical apocalypse stories focus only on survival, the questions posed by this story are larger and for all readers. The book’s exciting plot is threaded with quiet moments that take us into the bonds between characters and between the community and the land, and suggest where and how resilience can be found.
Hour of the Crab, by Patricia Robertson
The stories in this masterful collection show astonishing breadth and vision. Robertson immerses us in the most urgent issues of today, particularly the refugee crisis and ecological collapse. Her insights are rooted in history and myth, and crucially, in an apprehension of how the non-human and the spiritual intercede in and influence our lives. As a story writer first, I admire Robertson’s superb command of form and style, the way the stories resonate and speak to each other. But it’s the great heart and expansive thinking in this book that moved me the most.
The Nightingale Won’t Let you Sleep, by Steven Heighton
This novel by the late Steven Heighton, one of our country’s finest writers, bears witness to the culture of militarism and its costs in a wholly unexpected way. Set on Cyprus, an island literally divided by enmity, the novel imagines a community blossoming among ruins like flowers in cracked concrete. A traumatized soldier, a colonel, assorted refugees and exiles are stabilized and nourished by the beauty of the land and their own brave willingness to trust. Heighton conveys the raw losses of war alongside the power of even damaged places—and people—to love and heal. His poetic writing celebrates what it means to be alive. Alongside this novel I also recommend Heighton’s Reaching Mithymna, a stunning memoir about his month volunteering in a refugee camp.
The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well, by Mike Barnes
Barnes drew on myth brilliantly in his memoir of mental illness, The Lily Pond. In this collection of fairy tales, he takes up with the urgent and uncomfortable teachings that all great tales hold in their strange, deceptively simple shapes. These stories are marvelous, puzzling, and disturbing, full of paradox and eerie beauty. In the various monsters, spells, curses, and magical transformations are observations about the gifts offered to us in dark times. Inky illustrations by the artist Sebringway entwine with Barnes’ haunting language, giving physical body to these ethereal encounters. The book practically vibrates.
The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline
In a world altered by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream. Madness is spreading. Only Indigenous people are unaffected—and literally hunted as a resource to create a cure. As in Rice’s novel, the apocalyptic premise of The Marrow Thieves allows Dimaline to address the devastating legacy of colonialism on Indigenous peoples. While the protagonist, a young teen, learns about his cultural past, we also apprehend the depth of pain and loss. Yet he’s also learning how to be part of a community—one that can survive the breakdown with ingenuity and strength. A reflection on coming to terms with one’s past and creating a viable future, I found this story harrowing and beautiful in its lessons about living.
To Speak for the Trees, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger
Beresford-Kroeger, an Irish-born botanist and biochemist living in Ontario, brings a scientist’s understanding and poet’s sensitivity to understanding forests. In this book, a memoir, she recounts how childhood loss led to a profound connection, where she became the student of Celtic elders and inherited their plant teachings. Human health and forest health are entwined, physically and spiritually. This is a profoundly moving story about one person’s resilience and how our entire culture can—and must—change in order to heal the land and ourselves. We can start with the trees. Illuminating.
A tender ensemble novel about coming home to oneself and one's family through the beauty and soulfulness of Earth, even in an age of unravelling.
Brothers Justin and Oliver have never been close. Justin owns an iconic Toronto restaurant and lives with his wife and daughter in Baby Point. Oliver, a former environmental reporter, does admin for a local gym and rents an attic apartment. Yet both men know their worlds stand on the brink. With their mother's abrupt death, each sets out to set things right: Oliver to reclaim a beloved home, Justin to save one that's falling apart.
Intersecting Justin's and Oliver's journeys is Gabe: a budding biologist enchanted by the underappreciated beauty of moths, and conflicted by the demands of scientific scrutiny. As the brothers' pursuits take them from Toronto Island to the Humber River, from drugs and transgressive art to meetings with imperiled activists, Gabe stakes everything on a glimpse of a new possibility.
Sharon English has penned a tender and powerful novel about the claims places make on our hearts, and how journeys into darkness are sometimes necessary to see through catastrophe. Night in the World explores the need to end our separations from each other and from nature—coming home, at last, to a beleaguered yet still beautiful world.
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