What is CanLit?

  • Annabel Lyon
    The Sweet Girl. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Linda Spalding
    The Purchase. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)

When the 2013 Governor-General Literary Award for Fiction was announced, there was an immediate backlash against the choice: should The Luminaries, a book set in New Zealand written by a woman born in Canada, but raised and is still living in New Zealand, be eligible for one of our top literary awards? As the CanLit canon has expanded over the years, so too has our definition of Canadian literature, but the shift has not been easy or comfortable.. Linda Spalding, who won the GG award in 2012 for her novel The Purchase, could easily have sparked the same debate; Spalding was born in America, and the book itself takes place entirely in Virginia during the American Civil War. And while Annabel Lyon is more obviously “Canadian” based on her biography, her novel The Sweet Girl also takes place in a setting far removed from our traditional “home and native land”: Ancient Greece.

Of course, this shouldn’t make any difference; over half of the books selected as finalists for the 2013 Canada Reads event are set outside of Canada by authors not originally from here. This is an accurate reflection of the diversity of people who make up Canada in the twenty-first century. What is all the more interesting about the two novels reviewed here is that they are historical fictions not concerned with the history or myth-making of our nation, at least not directly. I find it reassuring that these two authors force us to look at our shared histories from periods and places we often assume far removed from our own nation-building exercises.

The more provocative question is, in regards to Spalding’s book: does a main character have to be likable? The author is a direct descendant of Daniel Dickinson, the protagonist of the novel. Spalding reimagines the moment, in 1798, when Daniel takes his family and leaves their Quaker community to settle in Virginia after the death of his wife. She is trying to make sense of the events that followed. The purchase of the title is Daniel’s purchase of a slave, something that goes directly against his Quaker values and beliefs. We are privy to Daniel’s attempts to justify this decision and all subsequent decisions stemming from this initial compromise of his core values. The purchase will haunt him and his family over the course of the entire novel.

All of the characters in the story are richly drawn, from Daniel’s young, new wife, to his older, bitter daughter, all making poor decisions based on their own desperation and loneliness, particularly as they manoeuvre unfamiliar territories between race, class and gender divisions. It is a hard novel to read because their choices to us contemporary readers, seem so wrong, so short-sighted, so terrible, but because of that, the novel also stays with us. It is difficult to watch this family unravel because of one purchase, but this difficulty is a reminder of the tenuousness of those values we hold.

The Sweet Girl is also based on a real historical figure, one we know little about: Aristotle’s daughter Pythias. We meet Pythias as a girl, smart and beautiful, beloved by her father. But when Aristotle dies, she is forced into a society that does not value women for their intellect. She has a series of encounters and adventures in her search for her place and herself. Unlike The Purchase, it is never clear if Lyon’s story of Pythias will end in tragedy or triumph; will this reimagined history be kind or cruel to the heroine? Throughout, we are confronted with limitations of the time on women, but also we also meet women who are thriving. Pythias is so vivid a character that I feel frustrated and stymied right along with her in her efforts to make her life her own. Eventually, she garners the attention of a god, further complicating her attempts at independence on her own terms. Ultimately, we are forced to question what larger forces push Pythias further and further from her goal.

Both books are haunting reminders of the inequities and cruelties of times past. Both also remind us that these inequities were enforced by real people, often ordinary people. Neither novel makes it easy to judge the characters based on our contemporary values. They stand as reminders of the choices individuals have always made in the face of powerful societal forces.



This review “What is CanLit?” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 173-74.

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