October 2001

New Adult Canadian Fiction for Teenage Readers

Margaret Mackey with Ingrid Johnston, Elaine Jones, Jyoti Mangat, and Jill Kedersha McClay

Strong and committed teenage readers are often found casting about for reading material that is interesting, accessible, and challenging. Canadian teens are lucky to live in a time when much contemporary publishing for adults provides a wealth of such material.

For the sixth time, this column offers a selection of contemporary Canadian titles published for adults but with much to offer to good teen readers. As usual, our selection is based on criteria of relevance, quality and recency. We work on the assumption that any reader capable of enjoying these titles is mature enough to deal with issues of strong language and graphic contents, and have made no attempt to censor our list on such grounds.

We have attempted to cast our net broadly in terms of genre, setting, and voice. No matter how well we have succeeded in this aim, however, there are undoubtedly many books that could be on this list and are not. It truly is a wonderful time to be a Canadian reader.

Family Stories

  • Robinson, Eden

    Monkey BeachToronto: Vintage Canada, 2001 (first published 2000). 378 p. Paperback. 0-676-97322-1

    Lisamarie Hill is a heroine to remember. When we meet her at the age of about 20, she has just learned that her only brother, Jimmy, is missing from his fishing trawler. The book interweaves the story of how Jimmy was lost with Lisamarie's recollections of her life growing up on the British Columbia coast. Her Haisla heritage resonates on every page, as does her stubborn character and determination to grow up her own way. Her gift of prophecy has seldom brought her joy; usually it is pain and loss that she foresees. Nevertheless, this is not a gloomy book - or rather, it is not just sad, for sadness certainly dominates some of the pages, as laughter and amazement dominate others. Lisa's description of her life is both contemporary and approachable. Her account of her extended family rings true; they are not always wise or even sensible but they do have a full sense of life.

    By turns dark, funny, spiritual, angry, and poetic, but invariably highly readable, this book is a major accomplishment. Many readers will come away from it feeling they have changed as a result of reading it. (MM)

  • Simpson, Anne

    Canterbury BeachToronto: Penguin Viking, 2001. 312 p. Hardback. 0-670-89484-2

    Based on the old schema of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this book tells the story of a family returning to the Maine cabin where they have spent many summers. Verna and Allistair have been visiting this coastal spot for forty years; their children are now grown and most of them are making the trek from Nova Scotia this summer. The two cars set out in convoy. There are four adult children in the family: Neil, Spike, Evelyn, and Garnet. Neil is not coming with the others but is represented on this trip by his estranged wife Robin. Garnet has not made any connection with his family for a number of years, but his mother hopes he may show up this time, and this hope fuels her trip.

    The complex interweavings of this family dominate the linked stories of this book. As with last year's The Good House by Bonnie Burnard, the intricate plotlines of family politics are more than sufficient to fill an entire book. Some issues are resolved, others are simply aggravated, but the life of the family is persuasive and the book as a whole makes very interesting reading. (MM)

  • Singh Baldwin, Shauna

    What the Body Remembers Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000 (1999). 515 p. Paperback. 0-676-97318-3

    Baldwin's novel, set in India during the 1930s and 1940s, reads like a finely woven tapestry of characters, cultures and dramatic historical events. The power and poignancy of the story lies in the rich portrayal of the three main characters: Roop, beautiful and nave, who dreams of marrying into wealth and happiness, but is unprepared for her fate as the second wife of Sadarji, a rich landowner; Satya, the supplanted first wife, who is intelligent and loyal but unable to bear a child; and Sadarji himself, who struggles to find his place amidst the separatist tensions of a divided India. The novel effectively moves between the perspectives of the main characters, and presents a fascinating portrayal of love, intrigue, jealousy and treachery. The book is long, and the plot complex, but it is an absorbing and memorable read. (IJ)

  • Endicott, Marina

    Open Arms Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001. 248 p. Paperback. 1-55054-840-9

    In this wonderful first novel told in three distinct parts, we get to look in on the heroine, Bessie Smith Connolly, at the ages of 17, 20 and 24 as she struggles to come to terms with her family and find her place in the world. At 17, mourning the death of her grandfather and a recent breakup with her boyfriend, she moves away from the Nova Scotia home of the grandparents who raised her to Saskatchewan to be with her mother Isabel. Isabel is a part-time singer who shares a house with her ex-husband's second ex-wife, Katherine, and child, Irene. In Part 2, at 20, Bessie travels with her step-sister, Irene, to Galiano Island to spend the Christmas holidays with their father and his very pregnant and soon-to-deliver-twins girlfriend. In Part 3, at 24, a pregnant Bessie and her grandmother take to the road to find Bessie's mother who has disappeared, following a trail that leads them from Northern Saskatchewan to the B.C. interior and back.

    Strong, appealing characters make this book work. In the end, the story is both funny and wise and has a lot to say about the mother and daughter relationship and the contemporary family. (EJ)

  • Chong, Kevin

    Baroque-a-nova Toronto: Penguin Books, 2001. 232 p. Paperback. 014100025-2

    This book tells an absorbing story of a teenage boy trying to come to terms with the suicide of his mother, a woman who is known to him only through different kinds of records of her earlier life as a music star. The book takes place over the week of her death. Not surprisingly, 18-year-old Saul is not quite sure what to think or feel when he hears of his mother's death. His school life is messy; his family life even more so. He speaks directly to the reader and successfully conveys much of the uncertainty of being a teenager, particularly one who is temporarily in the public eye.

    This book is a first novel and shows some unevenness, especially in the tone of voice of its first person narrator. Nevertheless, it does a good job of getting inside the experience of being a teen trying to find a place in the world. (MM)

  • Wallace, Karen

    Raspberries on the YangtzeLondon: Simon and Schuster, 2000. 148 p Paperback. 0-689-82796-2

    Karen Wallace now lives in England but she lived in Quebec until her early teens, and this story of childhood is set on the Gatineau River. The narrator is Nancy, who roams the countryside with her brother Andrew, her fatherless friends Amy and Clare, and her enemy Sandra Wilkins, whose sister Tracy is mysteriously at odds with their mother.

    Nancy thinks she knows all there is to know about love and hate, lust and babies, but her understanding is far more limited than she realizes. Still, she knows enough to realize that something is very wrong with the Wilkins family. The hot, free, summer days should be untroubled, but even half-understood secrets can interfere with the simplest childhood pleasures.

    This short novel is easy to read and conveys the joys and frustrations of childhood very evocatively. (MM)

Contemporary Life

  • Ferguson, Will

    GenericaToronto: Penguin, 2001. 309 p Paperback. 0-14-029984-X

    What would happen if somebody published the ultimate self-help book that actually solved all the problems of everyone who read it? According to this rollicking satire, the world as we know it would come to a halt. Nobody would need to strive for anything ever again. Yet, as Edwin de Valu, the "hero"

of this funny story discovers, that nirvana of ultimate satisfaction all round might well cause different kinds of problems.

This book aims many telling and entertaining blows at contemporary society, the publishing industry, the self-help mania of our times and at many New Age notions along the way. Its main premise is utterly preposterous, but the sheer ridiculousness of the story does not prevent it from making many telling observations about North American life as we know it today. Its complex, larger-than-life plot and characters are engaging without necessarily being likable. The book is amusing and savage all at once. (MM)

  • Taylor, Timothy

    Stanley ParkToronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001. 423 p. Hardback. 0-676-97307-8

    Carefully nuanced characters, an intriguing plot, and thematic explorations of the relationships of people to their environment and food combine to make Stanley Park a rich and satisfying read. Chef Jeremy Papier, trained in France, returns home to Vancouver to open The Monkey's Paw Bistro, where he highlights local produce. His interest in people's relationship to the food available in their surroundings, though, is oddly echoed by his eccentric anthropologist father who studies homeless people living in Vancouver's Stanley Park. As Jeremy's father is increasingly drawn into the lives of these seemingly rootless people, he also becomes obsessed with the mysterious deaths of two young children in the Park in the 1950s. When Jeremy's financial stress threatens his restaurant, he is forced to turn to the creepy Dante, of the successful coffeehouse chain Dante's Inferno. The discussions of culinary and restaurant styles add to the flavour and delight of this novel. (JKM)

  • Stories About Stories

    Speculative Fiction

    Stories From History

    to make the characters real. The result is a vivid adventure story filled with people who, perhaps because of their actual historical roots and quirks, come across as larger than life. The reshaping of the West was not a pretty operation. Stenson does an excellent job of conveying the accidents, the contingencies, and the messiness of that story. The result is an illuminating and fascinating novel. (MM)

  • Johnston, Wayne

    Baltimore's Mansion: A Memoir Toronto: Vintage Canada 2000 (1999). 272 p. Paperback. 0-676-97297-7

    Lord Baltimore founded the community of Ferryland on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, as long ago as the 1620s. Wayne Johnston tells a more recent story, but one equally steeped in history: the anguished battle among Newfoundlanders over whether to confederate with Canada or to stick it out independently as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth. Families divided and acrimony ran deep for generations.

    In this story of his father and his grandfather, Johnston explores that ebb and flow of emotion and eloquence in highly fascinating ways. Author of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams which fictionalizes the story of Joe Smallwood, the victorious leader of the Confederation cause, Johnston here tells something of the other side of the story. In the course of this book, we learn much about the Johnston family, about the psychology of losing a vital political battle, and about the doughty and hardworking people of Newfoundland. At the same time, we are offered many subtle insights into how fathers and sons make and break connections with each other. The book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end. (MM)

  • Assiniwi, Bernard

    The Beothuk SagaTranslated by Wayne Grady. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000 (first published in French in 1996). 341 p. Hardback. 0-7710-0798-1

    This book accomplishes many things and raises many questions. It begins at the time that the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland and ends with the death of the last of the Beothuks in the 19th century. A saga spread over eight hundred years must establish strong emotional connections with the characters in order to sustain readers' interest, and this book certainly succeeds at that level. Assiniwi also achieves a convincing sense of time passing, customs changing, legends settling into fixed stories. This story establishes anew the utter horror of an entire people being wiped out, and restores a shameful chapter of Canadian history to a live moral question.

    The Beothuks became extinct almost 175 years ago, so there is no one left to speak directly for them. In a fictionalized account such as this one, readers need to be able to trust the narrator, to know the authority for his assertions about a silenced people. In this story, Assiniwi often convinces through the substance of detail, but there are points where it would be useful to know more about the basis of his descriptions. In particular, a motif of lesbian exchanges between the wives of a single man raises the issue of authenticity. A single occurrence of such a scene might be taken as poetic license; when it recurs over centuries, questions arise about the historical warrant for such description. It is not that the lesbian scenes are particularly offensive in themselves indeed they are warmly comforting. But it is not clear whether readers are meant to suspend disbelief and read these scenes as fiction, or to ascribe historical verification and read them as fact. This mental conflict eventually interferes with complete enjoyment of the book and may limit its value for broad recommendation. Nevertheless, those who relish the sweep of historical sagas will find much to enjoy in this wide-ranging novel. (MM)

  • Sports Writing

    Short Stories