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Canada: Aritha van Herk

While readers might expect Canadian fiction to be about canoeing or the wilderness, they are more likely to discover urban landscapes, complex characters, and psychological tension. Canadian writing is as varied as the country's multicultural, multiracial, and multigeographical dimensions. Readers will encounter many voices and styles, as well as a sweep of thematic concerns, some of them indeed focused on Canada's enormous geography, but overall a mosaic of echoes and ethnicities.

Among many excellent Canadian writers, Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known. Her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), is one of the earliest to examine food, anorexia, and self-esteem. A wittily acerbic autopsy of the gaps between men and women, it is Atwood's funniest work. The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a chilling evocation of reproductive technology as political tool, is set in a dystopic future where women have no role except to breed. It is both Atwood's most frightening and most skilful novel. The tone is so perfectly managed that readers will feel the hair rising on the backs of their necks. Atwood achieves that pitch again in Alias Grace (1996), a historical and psychological retelling of the life of Grace Marks, a nineteenth-century Ontario servant woman charged with murdering her employer.

From a host of potential names, including Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies, Hugh McLennan could be designated Canadian literature's long-time patriarch. The Halifax explosion of 1917, when a munitions ship blew up in the harbour (the biggest man-made explosion before Hiroshima) is compellingly depicted in his Barometer Rising (1941). Two Solitudes (1945) examines shifting French-English viewpoints through a cast of characters who represent those two political entities. But if McLennan's writing is respected, the work of Canada's literary matriarch, Margaret Laurence, is loved. Laurence's fiction depicts women both confined by and escaping small prairie towns. The best of her novels, The Stone Angel (1964), brilliantly evokes the thoughts of an old woman facing death, and, ‘rampant with memory’, reviewing her life. A Jest of God (1966), which was made into the movie, Rachel, Rachel, celebrates a woman's rejection of duty as she discovers sexual pleasure. It is the most complex and intriguing of Laurence's novels. Laurence's fiction is compellingly realistic in its portrayal of human pride and redemption, and her stories depict women's physical and emotional desires without coyness or restraint.

Carol Shields is part of the Canadian tradition of powerful women writers. The Stone Diaries (1993) follows the extraordinary life of an ordinary woman, her sudden pleasures and rare disappointments. Its male counterpart novel, Larry's Party (1996), traces the maze-like obsessions of Larry, from his work to his penis and his health. Both stories are rich with texture and detail. Just as remarkable but far less well known are Shields’ short stories, especially the collection Various Miracles (1989).

Another superb short-story writer, Alice Munro, details the ambivalent dreams of women searching for validation. The Progress of Love (1986) and Open Secrets (1994) collect intricate, almost photographically realistic stories that test the limits of secrets and shame. Similarly, expatriate writer Mavis Gallant's The Selected Stories (1997) demonstrate outsiderhood and alienation. Gallant and Munro are renowned for their amazing virtuosity, yet their writing is so beautifully transparent that readers enter their stories as easily as walking through a door. Many Canadian short-story writers merit attention, including especially Audrey Thomas's The Wild Blue Yonder (1990), and Sandra Birdsell's Agassiz Stories (1987). This list merely scratches the surface.

Historical novels set out to describe the world's wider canvas, often choosing moments important to Canada's national story. Burning Water (1980), by George Bowering, reconstructs the voyages of Captain George Vancouver as he mapped Canada's west coast, redrawing, too, the role of the writer in relation to his subject. John Steffler's The Afterlife of George Cartwright (1992) details that eighteenth-century English trader's complicity in the colonization and genocide of the Labrador native people. In The Whirlpool (1986) Jane Urquhart characterizes the compelling force of historical Niagara Falls, with its suicides and its honeymooners, its poets and its scavengers. Her novel Away (1994) chronicles the physical and emotional voyage of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to Canada with exquisite compassion.

Timothy Findley's novels combine history and mythology. Famous Last Words (1981) reinvents Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, who writes a subversive testament to the horror of war. Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) is the story of Noah's ark and the flood that obliterates the world in Genesis. Told through the perspective of Noah's wife and her blind cat, it is a remarkable novel about human complicity with death and destruction.

History enjoys a tantalizing presence in Michael Ondaatje's novels. The English Patient (1992), set in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War, uses the sensuous details of a love-story as a contrast to the terrifying dictates and duties of victory. In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which celebrates the workers and immigrants who built the growing city of Toronto in the 1920s, is possibly the most powerful of all historical novels written in Canada. Full of physical detail, it makes the city of Toronto a living, breathing fictional presence.

It is to be expected that a nation of immigrants will be shaped by that experience, and one of the greatest markers of Canadian literature is its ethnic diversity. Multiple origins give rise to a cacophony of voices, haunted by the ghosts who accompany them to their new places of settlement. Included in that diversity are powerful stories from Canada's many aboriginal peoples. Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) describes the terrible effect of residential schools on First Nations children. Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993) rewrites European mythology from a native Canadian point of view. Many races rainbow Canadian fiction's horizons. Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here (1996) dances between Toronto and the Caribbean. Joy Kogawa's depiction of the displacement and humiliation of the Japanese in the Second World War is unforgettably rendered in Obasan (1981), while Hiromi Goto's Chorus of Mushrooms (1994) investigates a more contemporary Japanese-Canadian experience. Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Café (1990) orchestrates the development of Vancouver's Chinatown. Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (1996) is steeped in the marginalities of the Parsi diaspora. Anita Badami's Tamarind Mem (1997) moves characters between the Indian railway system and Canada. Such a list might seem a bewildering smorgasbord, but there is not one immigrant story, but many; not one racist experience, but many; no single aboriginal mythology, but many.

Canada's many geographical regions suggest a spatial diversity as well. Robert Kroetsch rewrites the tall tales of western and northern Canadian barrooms. In the magic realist What the Crow Said (1978), a community plays host to a series of mythical events, from flood and fire to endless winter. This is the best, the most wildly imaginative novel written about the weather in Canadian literature. In Kroetsch's Alibi (1983) a collector roams the world in search of the perfect spa, and finally finds both peace and rejuvenation. Geography prompts strange tales indeed. In the crevasses of the Columbia Icefields in the Rocky Mountains, Thomas Wharton's Icefields (1995) comes face to face with angels. David Adams Richards uses New Brunswick to show his characters’ inarticulate frustrations in Nights Below Station Street (1988), and Wayne Johnston, in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) portrays a Newfoundland as eccentric as its history. These are but a few representative novels, for every region of Canada has developed a literary vernacular singular to that area, and writers are creating fictions to match.

Then there are bizarre novels, oddities that refuse to belong anywhere. Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966), as might be expected from the king of deep-throated song, is a quest novel in search of the erotics of sainthood. Marian Engel's Bear (1976) is a short, brilliant parable about a woman's love-affair with a bear—yes, a real and not metaphorical love-affair with a real bear. The deformed, crippled, and mutilated characters in Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look on Love (1992) are enticingly grotesque. And for sheer comic relief, there is little to compare with Suzette Mayr's lament for the loneliness of old age, The Widows (1998). Some of these novels are well known and some ignored, but they describe a parabola of incredible temptations.

Last but not least trail two inimitable children, children who have been a part of Canadian literature for years. W. O. Mitchell's description of a boy growing up on the prairie and learning the exquisite ripples of sadness and loss, Who has Seen the Wind (1947), merits multiple rereadings. And Anne of L. M. Montgomery's classic Anne of Green Gables (1908), the story of an imaginative red-headed orphan who invents stories and who loves trouble, is possibly the best loved of any Canadian character. Anne is a reader's delight, and a passport to a literature where such heroines are commonplace, and where wonderful, engaging fiction is a part of a country's character.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction