Chances are, when you think about a book you loved, it’s not the sublime descriptions of architecture that come to mind. More likely, it’s the characters—fictional, but in terms of impact, not. Characters happen to us, we care about them, love them, cringe at their foibles, laugh at their antics, and cry at their defeats. We want things for them, and we often flip pages faster and faster as our investment in them deepens.
Today some avid readers—Steph VanderMeulen, Léonicka Valcius, Dee Hopkins, Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen, Vicki Ziegler, and me (Kiley Turner)—talk about the CanLit characters that have most affected us and stayed with us. We all wanted to name at least twenty more, and on Twitter over the next week we’ll be asking you to name some of your favourites (please use #bestcharacters). We’ll then create a nice big list, with your picks included.
Steph VanderMuelen picks Patrick deWitt’s barman and Trevor Cole’s Jean Horemarsh
“Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions is chock-full of well-imagined, strange, and funny people, but the whiskey-loving barman is my favourite. On a downward spiral, with liver disease, bad teeth, a drug addiction, and a failed marriage, he realizes that the only way to change his life and find happiness is to rob his boss and escape the environment and people around him.
Jean Horemarsh, from Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean, is a middle-aged ceramist who’s just spent the last three months watching her cancerous mother die a painful death. Reflecting on her mother afterward, as well as on old age and death and how horrid it is to die in such a way—that is to say, in pain and unhappy—well-meaning, practical Jean decides to save her closest friends from the perils of growing old…by murdering them.”
Steph VanderMeulen is a copy editor, writer, and creative writing coach who is also the creator of the popular lit blog Bella’s Bookshelves. She is on Twitter at @BellasBookshelf. You can check out her reviews of Ablutions and Practical Jean on her blog.
Léonicka Valcius picks Carol Shields’ Daisy Stone Goodwill, Andrew Kaufman’s Weird siblings, and Lawrence Hill’s Aminata Diallo
“The first Canadian book I fell in love with was The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. Daisy Stone Goodwill was the most down-to-earth and normal woman I had ever encountered in fiction. I liked that she wasn’t extraordinary. I liked that her life unfolded like that of many other women but it was still a story worth telling.
I also really clung to The Weird siblings in Andrew Kaufman’s Born Weird. As individuals they were a bit random, a bit off-the-wall, and yes, a bit weird. But I recognized the relationship they had with each other. They bickered and made up much like I do with my brothers.
Finally, I will never forget Aminata Diallo’s story in The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. The horror and scale of the Transatlantic Slave trade often gets diluted when we speak of it terms of statistics. Aminata’s story, though fictional, re-centred the human impact.”
Dee Hopkins picks Beatrice Mosionier’s April Raintree, Brian Francis’s Joyce Sparks, and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce
“Beatrice Mosionier’s April Raintree has stayed with me for two decades. Torn from her parents and fiercely protective of her sister, April is judged and abused because she’s Aboriginal. She shook away my cozy misconceptions and made me think about identity. April’s story, about violence against women and Aboriginal women in particular, continues to be achingly relevant.
Loss echoes through Brian Francis’s Natural Order. Elderly Joyce Sparks is haunted by love, guilt, and loneliness in equally devastating measures. She adored her deceased son, yet pushed him away through her denial of his homosexuality. Joyce is funny, vicious, frustrating. Never a caricature, her stubbornness and narrow worldview have brought her small happinesses and so much pain.
And then there’s Flavia de Luce. Alan Bradley’s 11-year-old amateur sleuth is a serious chemist with a passion for poisons and a flare for solving mysteries in 1950s England. By turns childish and wise, it’s a joy to watch Flavia grow up—just a little—in each new book.”
Jaclyn-Qua Hiansen picks Farzana Doctor’s Ismail, Angie Abdou’s Ligaya, and joins Dee in picking Flavia de Luce
“In Six Metres of Pavement, Ismail, a middle-aged man haunted by his role in his daughter’s death twenty years ago, finds a second chance at life when he falls in love with his widowed neighbour. I love how open he is to change, and how hard he tries to do the right thing.
My reason for picking Ligaya from Between is unabashedly personal: I so rarely see Filipinos as major characters in Canadian Literature that I’m thrilled Abdou chose a Filipina nanny as one of her two protagonists. Abdou treats Ligaya with sensitivity and respect, and her story as important. And yes, this matters.
The scientific genius of Sherlock Holmes, the street smart savvy of Nancy Drew, and the deceptively genteel environment of St. Mary Mead … all in the irrepressible Flavia de Luce. I am a lifelong fan of mysteries, so it’s no wonder that Flavia is probably one of my favourite Can Lit characters of all time.”
Kiley Turner picks Kenneth J. Harvey’s Myrden and Lisa Moore’s David Slaney
“Both my picks, coincidentally, are about men “freed” from jail who are fact ultimately trapped by class, fate, masculinity, the people around them, and the choices they make. Kenneth J. Harvey’s Myrden—released after 14 years in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed—was so well-written I could almost hear him breathing over my shoulder as I read. The extreme staccato of Harvey’s sentences serves as an indicator of Myrden’s repressed, helpless rage. The whole book is a marvel.
In Caught, Lisa Moore constructs a thrilling character, David Slaney, who twists, turns, runs, and sails his way to freedom—from jail, from life after jail, from convention. At the same time Moore gradually lets the reader become aware of the ties increasingly tightening around Slaney’s wrists. He’s doomed, but exuberantly so. The book reads as a thriller, too … just wow.”
Kiley Turner is the managing editor on 49th Shelf and partner with Craig Riggs in Turner-Riggs Workspace, where we have no elevator pitch or website updated in the past decade but are happy to help clients with theirs, among other things. I’m on Twitter as @kturn.
Vicki Ziegler picks Sue Goyette’s ocean
“One of the most unforgettable CanLit characters I’ve encountered in recent memory comes from a perhaps unexpected literary source: a poetry collection. The eponymous character in Sue Goyette’s Ocean is truly a character: tempestuous, playful, petulant, needy, destructive, by turns sensitive and recklessly unheeding.The ocean plays an intertwined, sometimes perverse pas de deux with its supporting cast of people who depend upon it for various livelihoods, are fascinated by it, infuriated by it, driven to despair by it. On one hand … “Tourism was great until the ocean went all coyote on us. / Lurking behind schoolyards, attacking people.” On the other … “We’d been jilted, left at the harbour. Our wild lover; / our reckless friend. Our raison d’etre had transformed / into a bland and mild version of itself.” You’ll keep turning from one wry, delightful, touching poem to the next, always wondering which rendition of the enigmatic ocean will show up next.
Vicki Ziegler is a website/online/social media manager who works with the Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry, among other amazing clients. She reads steadily and omnivorously, blogs about books from time to time at Book Gaga, and tweets regularly about things literary via @bookgaga.
Following is a video on Sue Goyette, including her reading from Ocean (at about the 1:40 mark).