Brief Thoughts on the Contenders for Canada Reads 2014

The book has been the subject of criticism chiefly by those who have not read it and on account of views which it does not express.  But much of what we call criticism is merely suspicion, as much of what we call history is merely imagination.

— Sir John Willison, in, The Federation of Canada, 1917

The conceit this year is “the book that will change Canada” and I’ll try to remember that.

In no particular order:

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood

Good gravy! So emotionless.

Atwood’s Science Fiction reads like a totally unfeeling version of Heinlein or Del Rey with better vocabulary but less hope.  The apocalypse is predictable and a rehash of so much from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and I just don’t care about the characters!

The ideas are as new and as compelling as anything in the best of the 1950s English language Science Fiction, the characters are as fleshed and compelling as the best of the 1970s SF, and the writing matches the ideas and the characters.

And The Island of Dr Moreau.

Okay, I admit that by page 325 or so, The Year of the Flood caught my interest.

I don’t think The Year of the Flood is going to change anything about Canada.  Most of us are aware of environmental issues, of genetic engineering issues.  Most of us have formed some sort of opinion.  I’m sure that few who actually read the book will have their opinion shifted remarkably in any direction.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I really liked Annabel, despite its biological improbability and tidy ending.  Like Hage does with Cockroach, Winter has got a foot in the door on an important issue, but I think Annabel is a little too tidy, and, despite the rape scene, a little too clean to burst that door wide.

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues

I certainly think that raising awareness of the Black experience in Canada is worthwhile.  I’m not sure, however, that a novel about Black Canadian musicians in Berlin in the 30s is the most powerful way to do it.  I wonder whether two previous Canada Reads contenders might have more effect.  Mairuth Sarsfield’s No Crystal Stair or Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring come to mind.  Actually, Brown Girl in the Ring gets the Year of the Flood thing going a bit, too.  Sure, Half-Blood Blues got the Giller and is a fine novel, but I’m not sure it has much chance to “change the country”.

Rawi Hage’s Cockroach

Rawi Hage really does the Immigrant Experience thing — if the immigrant is a kleptomaniac with severe depression but a raging libido.  Clearly Hage knows his Kafka and uses it well.  It would be wonderful if a novel changed the country by really making known immigrant issues to a wider Canadian audience.  Perhaps Hage has got his immigrant foot in the door, but Cockroach is not the novel to smash the door down.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I’ve written already about The Orenda.

I know Boyden and Wab Kinew have pissed off many in First Nations communities, particularly the Haudenosaunee.  I think that may be a good sign.  I also know that the history of early post-contact times is ill-served in the education of the general Canadian population.  I think The Orenda addresses this deficit in a small way.  Again, it is a foot in the door.

But I have a feeling, particularly in Kinew’s hands, that The Orenda will be the battering ram that smashes through some firmly barred and bolted gates separating Canada’s two biggest and most ignored solitudes.  As Kinew has hinted, non-native Canadians for the most part don’t know and don’t care about aboriginal people in Canada, about the history of Canada’s relations with aboriginal people, or the contributions aboriginal people have made and continue to make to Canadian society and culture.  Kinew has also suggested that on the other side — and I would add, in far too many non-native allies — there is an unrealistically utopian idea of what life was like in the old days.

I think, more than any other book in the running, particularly when advocated by Wab Kinew, The Orenda has the potential to truly shake up, and, in fact, change Canada.

Cockroach is my second choice.