Among Canada’s literary treasures are writers whose work I have reread so many times it feels as if I am stalking them on the page. You’ve likely encountered some of them too, so I’ll suggest their less celebrated books. I can’t yet personally recommend the Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s only novel, “Lives of Girls and Women,” because I am saving reading my Signet paperback — which sports a soft-focus cover image of a man and a woman in a russet field in what might be rural Ontario, where Munro sets most of her fiction — for a special occasion. But I can tell you to read every book of short stories she has written, mainly about the inner lives of girls and women, because I have read them all. My favorites include the domestic gems in “Friend of My Youth” and the switchback tales of “Open Secrets.”
I can’t resist suggesting more short stories by two of Canada’s most recognized contemporary writers. Though Margaret Atwood is best known for her dystopian novels, her early short stories, including those in “Bluebeard’s Egg,” offer witty, earthbound characters shaped by the natural world. And the stories by the Chicago-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian writer Carol Shields — gathered in one volume, “The Collected Stories of Carol Shields” — are grounded too. But in her long, exhilaratingly precise sentences, the quotidian lives of her characters lift off.
By contrast, the gritty surface of working-class lives in 1920s Toronto breaks after a terrifying fall — “into the long depth of air which held nothing” — and a miraculous rescue in Michael Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of a Lion,” which features several characters who resurface in his lush and tragic 1992 novel, “The English Patient.”
Since you mentioned “Lincoln in the Bardo,” I thought I’d take a chance and point you toward two books of high style: Sheila Watson’s elemental, modernist classic from 1959, “The Double Hook,” and a more recent novel that plays into your musical interest: Esi Edugyan’s suspenseful, richly voiced historical jazz novel, “Half-Blood Blues.”
Get carried away by another historical novel bound by music, Madeleine Thien’s tragic epic set in Vancouver and China, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing.” The narrator, a math professor named Marie Jiang, pieces together the life of her father, a concert pianist, whose life was shattered during the Cultural Revolution.
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