As someone who has both a perpetual desire to be surprised and an admittedly short attention span, it can be hard for me to really lose myself in a book. If the stakes of the book aren’t high enough, or if the writing isn’t somehow wrestling my overactive brain into submission, I’m likely to stop reading and dramatically bemoan the state of storytelling to anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot. The following books, which are all quite different in content, language, tone and genre, are the ones that managed to shake me from my melodramatic malaise and remind me of the power and wonder of the written word.
Hysteric, by Nelly Arcan
I will never stop complaining about the way that English Canada has seemingly forgotten Nelly Arcan. Her prose is like fire, with each of her protagonists carrying an unrelenting urgency to tell their stories to us now, in a way that I can only compare to the protagonists that feature in Elena Ferrante’s novels. While each of her books could be on this list, I chose the first book of hers I read: Hysteric. Years before the term “autofiction” became popular, Arcan wrote this book about a woman also named Nelly Arcan, who promised herself as a teenager that she would commit suicide when she was 30. This penetrating, intellectually stimulating novel follows Nelly’s 30th year—in particular, the intense relationship that begins and crumbles in her last year left to live. While Arcan’s own suicide at 36 is hard to ignore while reading this book, we’re lucky to still have her bold, brilliant catalogue to remind us what literature can do.
As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross
This book came to me in one of the most seemingly eye-rolling places to find a book: my mandatory Canadian English course in university. I assumed that the entire reading list would be boring based on my high school experience, but thankfully, my Canadian English professor had fantastic taste. Ross’s book seems rather uninteresting at first glance: it is about Mrs. Bentley, a woman who has recently moved to a small rural farming community with her pastor husband during the Great Depression. But the fact that this novel is written in the form of Mrs. Bentley’s diary makes it instantly engaging. As we follow her emotional highs and lows, and learn more about her and her husband’s failed art careers, it becomes impossible to put this book down. I’m a sucker for epistolary novels—and this is one of the best.
Pacifique, by Sarah L. Taggart
It’s hard to find a book that understands madness. It’s even harder to find a book that approaches the dreaded “are these events real or is this all in the mad character’s mind?” question without resorting to supposedly shocking twists that ultimately undermine the events of the book and the experiences of the mad person depicted. And yet, Taggart has done both in the incredible, complex Pacifique. Tia wakes up after a bike accident to find that her lover Pacifique, who she’s just spent the most amazing five days with, has completely vanished. Inside a mental hospital, she tries to hold onto Pacifique, even as evidence mounts that points to the possibility that Pacifique was in her head the whole time. This book meaningfully interrogates what it means to love, to have faith, and to believe—and its ending will stay with you.
Celia’s Song, by Lee Maracle
Let’s get this out of the way: this book is not an easy read. Nor should it be. Mink, a shapeshifter, narrates this novel, watching the events of a nearby Nuu’chalnulth village unfold after a five-year-old girl named Shelley is attacked and almost killed by another community member. There are such incredible complexities in not only Maracle’s unique narration style, but also in the emotional and intellectual understanding she shows as she walks us through what historical trauma does to individuals, families and communities. And yet, Maracle somehow takes these terrible circumstances and uses them to show us the most beautiful things: hope and change. It’s a miracle of a novel that almost takes the form of a restorative justice circle—but it was published five years before the term was widely known. Maracle always was a trailblazer.
We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy
This book is so shocking and weird and disturbing that, the first time I read it, as soon as I finished each of its short stories, I would insist my husband read it so I could talk to someone about it. While some of the writing is dated, having first been published in 1993, the wonder that Gowdy brings to each of her characters and their unique, bizarre lives makes you understand inherently the power of the short story. Any time that I need a reminder of what good character writing is—or, indeed, good writing in general—I go back to Gowdy and her motley crew of weirdos.
Traplines, by Eden Robinson
Speaking of incredible short stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Eden Robinson’s incendiary first book, Traplines. Her writing is so raw, her characters so real, that the first time I read this book, I felt like I’d been punched—but in a good way, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t. There is something so modern and fresh about Robinson’s writing, which balances violence and horror and humour effortlessly. This is apparent in all her work, of course, but there’s something especially exciting about her first book of stories, which makes you almost forget that it was published in 1996 instead of last week. Observant readers will also note that the stories in Traplines were seeds that grew into her next two novels, Monkey Beach and Blood Sports—which, in Robinson’s innovative fashion, use entirely different structures and genres from their original stories. Her storytelling is a marvel.
Theory, by Dionne Brand
Dionne Brand is a living legend whose every single book could be on this list—but, for expedience’s sake, I’ll stick to Theory. I will never stop complaining that Theory didn’t win every single award it could have won the year it came out. The unnamed, ungendered narrator of the novel is trying to write a thesis about… well, everything. The narrator hopes that this thesis will be the work that synthesizes, and therefore changes, the world. But, of course, the way that the narrator sees and understands the world isn’t just shaped by the theorists they are reading—it’s also shaped by the relationships the narrator has with three different lovers over the course of writing this ambitious thesis. Every word, every line, of this book dazzles with its intelligence, wit and insight. But what perhaps surprised me the most was how a novel of ideas like this could also be so embodied, so warm, so vulnerable. This is a brilliant book that will have you wanting to restart it the moment you finish.
NISHGA, by Jordan Abel
Having fallen in love with the genre and subsequently fallen down the creative nonfiction rabbit hole, which ultimately lead to my writing a book of essays myself, I thought I knew well what creative nonfiction was, what it could do. And then came Jordan Abel’s book NISHGA. This is one of those rare books that’s actually very difficult to describe, because any attempt to describe it feels like an unfair hammering down of its creativity, its seemingly endless possibility. While yes, the book is autobiographical, and yes, the book includes quite a bit of writing, it’s inaccurate to say it’s a book you simply read. You don’t just read this book. You experience it: watching as the words on the page become entwined with photographs and art; feeling as the transcript of a talk Abel gave, or the parts of court document Abel found, give context to everything that came before, and everything that will come after. It’s the closest thing to actually experiencing an art exhibit I’ve ever seen replicated on the page. I will never stop marveling at the genius that is Jordan Abel, whose debut novel Empty Spaces has just been released, which I am beyond eager to read.
A mind-bending, gripping novel about Native life, motherhood and mental health that follows a young Mohawk woman who discovers that the picture-perfect life she always hoped for may have horrifying consequences
On the surface, Alice is exactly where she should be: She’s just given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Dawn; her charming husband, Steve is nothing but supportive; and they’ve recently moved into a new home in a wealthy neighborhood in Toronto. But Alice could not feel like more of an imposter. She isn’t connecting with Dawn, a struggle made even more difficult by the recent loss of her own mother, and every waking moment is spent hiding her despair from their white, watchful neighbors. Even when she does have a minute to herself, her perpetual self-doubt hinders the one vestige of her old life she has left: her goal of writing a modern retelling of the Haudenosaunee creation story.
At first, Alice is convinced her discomfort is of her own making. She has gotten everything she always dreamed of, after all. But then strange things start happening. She finds herself losing bits of time, hearing voices she can’t explain, and speaking with things that should not be talking back to her, all while her neighbors’ passive-aggressive behavior begins to morph into something far more threatening. Though Steve assures her this is all in her head, Alice cannot fight the feeling that something is very, very wrong, and that in her creation story lies the key to her and Dawn’s survival. . . . She just has to finish it before it’s too late.
Told in Alice’s raw and darkly funny voice, And Then She Fell is an urgent and unflinching look at inherited trauma, womanhood, denial, and false allyship, which speeds to an unpredictable—and surreal—climax.
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