Twenty-first-Century Novels

  • Maria Löschnigg (Editor) and Martin Loschnigg (Editor)
    The Anglo-Canadian Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Interpretations. Universitätsverlag C. Winter
Reviewed by Margery Fee

Twenty-five chapters, each about an Anglo-Canadian novel or trilogy (Atwood and Frances Itani) published between 1999 and 2017, provide a useful—if necessarily selective—overview. The co-editors are co-chairs of the section on postcolonial literatures at the University of Graz, Austria, which also boasts a Centre of Canadian Studies. A footnote in their “Very Short Introduction” directs us to a multi-volume survey of the Québécois novel covering the same period, edited by Gilles Dupuis and Klaus-Dieter Ertler. The introduction’s brevity is redeemed not only by that footnote but also by a 1922 quotation from Douglas Bush, whose trajectory from Toronto to Harvard is now all but forgotten: “[n]o-one reads a Canadian novel unless by mistake.” Now no one even tries to read all the Canadian novels published in any given year in that same year, unless on a prize jury, and even then, there will be skimming. Most of us wait until bestseller lists, reviews and prize nominations have done some filtering. This book will remind readers of titles they may have overlooked. Contributors come from universities in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom, as well as Canada.

The essays cover authors from Alexis and Atwood to Vanderhaeghe and Richard B. Wright. Ten are women (with Itani meriting two essays) and twelve “writers of colour,” if you include Joseph Boyden, who also merits two essays. I certainly have not read all these novels, although I had heard of all the authors except Emily St. John Mandel (embarrassing, now that I look at her accomplishments). Most chapters provide biographical information for even the authors best known in Canada, signalling the book’s main intended audience: English-language readers outside Canada. Generally, the chapters avoid entering theoretical debates or making large comparative moves: these are well-contextualized, well-written interpretations providing a handy and thoughtful reference for Canadianists everywhere.

Clearly, a European literary ecosystem has grown up around English Canadian literature. Only three Canadian critics are included: David Creelman (on Clarke’s George and Rue), Sherrill Grace (on Findley’s Pilgrim) and David Staines (on Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing). The International Council for Canadian Studies, European academic associations for both Canadian and postcolonial literatures, and university centres such as the one at Graz have created a web of relationships for Canadian authors, relationships that are rarely considered by critics at home. Indeed, the large numbers of readers for Canadian novels in translation or in English provided by the European market are in some cases possibly larger than the Canadian market itself. The reception of these novels, both popular (marked by sales, translations, and Internet posts) and critical (marked by reviews, critical studies, and university course adoptions) is well worth more study. These critics are clearly introducing a wide array of English Canadian writers to their students and colleagues.

To give each chapter equal due here would mean around twenty words apiece—since selection is impossible, I leave it to researchers, students, and general readers to consult this book for themselves as an informative and even inspiring guide to recent Canadian fiction.

This review “Twenty-first-Century Novels” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 20 Jul. 2020. Web.

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