The last few years of pandemic distancing and separation from those we love has left many of us now craving connection. We want to re-join the world at large. We want to get to know ourselves again. Books can offer all of that, and more. My new novel, Semi-Detached, has a lot to say about love and connection/disconnection, as its title suggests. So, the books that influenced me most while writing it also have something important to say about intimacy. My list of recommended reads features Canadian work that invites readers deeply inside an experience or a given character, in remarkable ways. Each of these books has the power to make us feel a little less alone and a great deal more alive.
Unless, by Carol Shields
While writing Semi-Detached, I was acutely aware of the late, great Carol Shields looking over my shoulder. Shields' 2002 novel, Unless, featured a runaway girl sitting at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto, and a love that is or isn’t enough to bring her home. I opened Semi-Detached with a different girl (Astrid) on a different corner (Greenwood and Gerrard) in the same city. The themes of love and home are woven throughout both my 1944 and 2013 plotlines. Shields’ distinctive style is on full display in this beautifully crafted novel.
Wild Dogs, by Helen Humphreys
I loved this book from the moment I cracked its spine and read the opening paragraph. It is pure prosetry, with an economy of language to which I aspire. More than that, it strips away the artifice of novel writing—the scaffolding of a traditional linear plot, for example, or lengthy backstories intended to reveal character. As a result, with Wild Dogs Humphreys comes as close to her readers as it may be possible for any novelist to come. The direct first-person appeal and a preoccupation with lost love—seemingly inevitable heart-wrung loss—is tonally perfect.
Mãn, by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman
This tiny novel is presented in brief chapters, sometimes as short as half a page. The brevity increases the power of the author’s words, almost as if by compressing them she has squeezed the strongest sensory details out of each line. In this way, Thúy makes the reading experience visceral. Her Vietnamese/Canadian story dramatizes the “in-between” state so many people experience, of not belonging neatly to a single identity. My characters in Semi-Detached straddle temporal and queer spaces, and sometimes exist “in-between” life and death.
What We All Long For, Dionne Brand
This is a novel I frequently teach in my creative writing classes because it captures contemporary Toronto, my home, in a way no other novel does. It shows the propulsive—often frenetic—energy of the city, and the diversity of its people, who come with their stories from all corners of the planet. What We All Long For offers a rich and textured vision of Toronto. It is evocative and atmospheric and features a cast of characters that are each vibrantly drawn.
Personals, by Ian Williams
I’ve returned to this collection of poems many times over the years. Williams’ inventiveness is profound. With the opening suite of poems, "Rings," the author creates a new poetic form, one that carries on indefinitely. In Semi-Detached I have also written about a world that carries on without end. The novelist in me was initially drawn in by the multiple voices within Personals, but what holds me inside the work are the intimate experiences the poet illuminates, whether they be a struggle with infertility or the impact of institutionalized racism.
Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear
- I feel an affinity with this memoir. Maclear takes Toronto for her setting. She leans on the lush greenspaces within our city, and its birds. Semi-Detached captures the same city trapped under snow and ice, where all living things are frozen in time. I appreciate Maclear’s insistence on going small, on finding small moments of joy in quotidian urban lives. There is a deeply philosophical approach to living in this work.
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
I read this sweeping saga years before I began writing Semi-Detached, but the power of the novel’s first-person narration has never left me. Hill’s protagonist, Aminata Diallo, kept me company during the long nights when I was up with my infant daughter. Aminata—a young African girl stolen into slavery and brought to America, tells her life story. Hill makes Aminata the author(ity) of her own experience, and in so doing he amplifies the voices of others whose histories have also been erased. This is a highly intimate tale, from childhood to old age, compelling and brilliantly crafted.
Field Notes for the Self, by Randy Lundy
In the final year of writing Semi-Detached, I came upon this collection of (mainly) prose poems. Highly imagistic and rooted in the author’s ancestral and cellular self, and in the natural world, these poems read like meditations. There is a spirit in the objects and actions Lundy describes, which turns the mundane into the sacred. Lundy’s human beings are connected to something much larger than our small selves. There is humility in this writing, and an expansive reach for freedom. In other words, there is hope.
On Class, by Deborah Dundas
This book was published after I’d finished writing Semi-Detached but I’m including it here because I wish I’d read it earlier. Class issues are central to my work, including Semi-Detached, to the psychology of my protagonists and to my plots. Whether speaking to the social inequality laid bare by the Covid 19 pandemic, or to the history of the Canadian union movement, or to the internal life of a working-class writer, On Class is a tiny revolution all its own. It is not to be missed.
Hearts may freeze or thaw, but love never dies.
In December 2013, an ice storm buries Toronto as realtor Laura Keys prepares to sell a one-of-a-kind house on behalf its comatose owner. Haunting Laura and longing to be invited in, is a mysterious teenage girl with a Scottish Terrier tucked into her coat.
As Laura readies the house for showing, she learns more about its owner, Edna “Eddie” Ferguson. Leading up to the Great Snowstorm of 1944, Eddie, a brickmaker, enters into a passionate yet ill-fated affair with her boss’s daughter. While uncovering the past, Laura navigates the death of her mother and her troubled marriage straining under the weight of infertility.
Across two paralyzing winter storms, set nearly seventy years apart and connected by a house and a murder, Semi-Detached contends with living after loss, love, and the meaning of home.
Insightful and evocative, emotionally intelligent and propulsive, this is a novel from a writer at the top of her game.
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