In being asked to write about my favourite Canadian authors, I sense peril, because I have many such writers, living and dead, some of whom I’ve come to know over the years and others known only through the page. To attempt a comprehensive list would be both exhausting and impossible. Some would be glossed over, others mistakenly omitted.
I’ve chosen instead to briefly write about two outstanding Canadian novels, chosen by one simple criterion: The degree to which the characters, images, and stories within each book have lingered with me over the years since I first read them.
Matt Cohen’s Last Seen (Vintage Canada, 1997) plunges the reader in and out of the grave, and back and forth between places that are simultaneously realistic and mysterious as the middle-aged protagonist, Alec, struggles with the grief of losing his brother, Harold. The story winds between a Toronto home, a bar where an Elvis impersonator may in fact be Elvis, and the graveyard where Harold occasionally climbs into his brother’s grave. The present and the past intermingle with the fantastic.
What Cohen achieved in this book was to make seamless transitions between the ethereal dream-like world of the day to day imagination (i.e. that mental-emotional space where many of us spend much of our time, the place to which some people refer as not-the-real-world) and the hard-nosed concrete world that is shared with other people. Yes, I know, Cohen didn’t invent “magic realism,” but what he did in this book was to use it in a way that haunts and intrigues me still, nearly twenty years after the fact.
In A Complicated Kindness (Knopf Canada, 2004), Miriam Toews channeled with perfect tone the genuine and irreverent voice of a sixteen-year-old narrator, Nomi, who struggles with strife from her community and the losses in her family. With Toews’s great writing and even pacing, Nomi becomes entirely real in the reader’s mind and psyche as she lives alone with her father in a Manitoba religious community that severely limits her every opportunity to build a life of her own. At her very core, she is a girl possessed of deep and loyal love for her father, but also has a punk rock soul that understands clearly that her town and its values are outdated and repugnant. Her father’s surprising actions on behalf of Nomi form the book’s finale, affording her the opportunity to choose her own path instead of the one ascribed to her by small town life. It leaves the reader contemplating the many practical forms that love can take, and that acts of love are hard to commit without a personal cost.
About the author:
The controlled and calm life of William Oaks is shattered when his parents die suddenly in a car crash. A reclusive paper conservator at a renowned Toronto museum, William must face the obsessions and denials that have formed him: delusional family history, religious fundamentalism, living with unhappy parents who are constantly bickering, forced starvation, secrets and get-rich-quick schemes. Memory and facts collide, threatening to derail his life and career as William feverishly prepares for an important exhibition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Ken Murray’s powerfully written debut novel, EULOGY (Tightrope Books) explores an unusual, Rapture-obsessed fundamentalist Christian family that places all of its hopes on catastrophic destruction. The only offspring of a sad marriage, William practices self-flagellation, since being disappointed with salvation was a damnable sin, and experiences tremendous self-doubt because of his upbringing. Murray writes, “When the timbers of your house are cemented with bullshit, you ignore the smell and hope for the bullshit to hold.” He hides in his lonely, quiet world away from other humans, but is it enough to survive his traumatic upbringing?
Praise for Eulogy:
“Absorbing novel…a cautious optimist, Murray grants this wounded soul a chance for happiness while acknowledging the work required to clasp it fully.” – Brett Josef Grubisic, The Georgia Straight
“Eulogy is a powerful and riveting exploration of the family: the tensions between father and son, mother and son, and mother and father through the sharp-eyed, sensitive voice of William Oaks. Masterfully mesmerizing.” —Catherine Graham, author of Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects
“In his debut novel, Ken Murray tells the kind of secrets that simultaneously bind and tear a family apart. With a quick turn of a head or a phrase, the normal becomes freakish, and cruelty mundane. This is a story about diet drinks and religion, death and video games. Eulogy is an obituary to modern innocence.” —Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of Down to This and Ghosted
“Too often, first-time novelists show up with baby fat or affectation or slavish devotion to some novelistic ideology. But Murray begins as a mature writer: muscular, plain spoken, himself alone. The story he tells here makes for compulsive reading.” —Benjamin Taylor, author of Naples Declared and The Book of Getting Even
“Eulogy is a serious, graceful novel that interrogates the roots of a particular strain of family unhappiness and, in the plumbing of William’s history, perhaps offers a glimpse at a measured kind of redemption.” —Ryan Matthews, Brooklyn Rail