Top 5 Reads – Fiction from the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival

Fiction. Who can explain its mysterious appeal, its lure? There was a time when fiction was considered to be a rather low form of writing. Talking points summarized here.

I’ve always been more partial to fiction than fact, insofar as reading is considered. Facts, please, in real life. The 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival was jam packed with fiction of all genres (under-represented would be science fiction and fantasy, although dystopian makes more than one appearance). Fiction with a distinctly Canadian slant, of course, has a heavy presence.

Among all the fiction titles, how to pick just five? I went with my gut and chose books books that I felt I connected to. Books I dwelled on. Books that managed to sit with me and leave an impression. Other criteria seems irrelevant and would be as arbitrary as one’s gut—since I make the rules.

So if you only have time for five books because your summer’s worth of beach going has to fit into a couple days, here’s where I’d start, in no particular order:

Song of Batoche – Maia Caron
Lost In September – Kathleen Winters
Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
How to Behave in a Crowd – Camille Bordas
Do Not Become Alarmed – Maile Meloy

In picking the novels, some patterns become apparent. I’ll start with the obvious: all the writers are women. Moving on.

I also loved all the covers of these books (other favourite covers: Savage Theories, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall and the The Heart’s Invisible Furies). I know I know—don’t judge a book by it’s cover. But I do. I really do. And I’m loving heavy typographic treatment on covers.

Gone, Went, Gone, Lost in September, Song of Batoche and How to Behave in a Crowd are ultimately about otherness and focus on people who don’t quite fit in their communities, or their families, or their countries, or their gender roles.

In Lost in September, we met a man who is out of sync with his time period. Set in present day Montreal, the main character believes he is James Wolfe—a British general who died in the 1750s. It has a dreamy, surreal quality, which it shares with How to Behave in a Crowd, which I likened to a Wes Anderson movie in a book format. Wolfe is out of his time, and maybe not quite in his own mind either.

In How to Behave in a Crowd, Dory is at odds with his older siblings, all of whom are geniuses. He is too—but he’s not quite as smart as his siblings and he never feels connected to them. Their father dies unexpectedly and Dory watches his family go through the motions, observing them with a greater emotional intelligence then the rest of them have. He’s smart—just not the same way they are.

Go, Went, Gone focuses on the plight of male immigrants from Africa in Germany. Their situation is both absurd and sad. The men can’t work because they lack paperwork, and they can’t get paperwork because they don’t work. This is not the only twisted logic. Author Jenny Erpenbeck examines the insensitive and illogical bureaucracy over and over. And it’s not just these lost men who are out of sync and lost in the world around them. The protagonist is a man who has just lost his wife and having to navigate life without her.

Song of Batoche’s sense of otherness has a narrow focus: Josette Lavoie, a Metis woman, is at odds with the heroic Louis Riel during the 1885 North-West Resistance. She is skeptical of his motives and untrusting of his plans. She’s at odds with her community and ostracised for not properly playing the role of “woman”. The other woman are suspicious of her and shun her in a way only women can. She doesn’t quite fit her time or gender role.

I picked Do Not Become Alarmed because it is unsympathetic and not everything works out in the end. Children go missing; the adults behave irresponsibly and lash out, and the children find a way to survive. No one comes off looking too great, which I think is a pretty accurate presentation of humanity in general. I chewed my nails throughout this thriller. It’s a fast read (you can’t put it down, in case something catastrophic happens). You could read this at the beach. Unless you’re travelling in a South American country with your children. Don’t read it in that case. You’ll be terrified and spend the rest of your vacation in a state of extreme paranoia and jumping at shadows.

These are uncomfortable times. It makes sense that the books that I’m drawn to examine otherness and alienation in a community or that represent communities in turmoil.

Okay, okay. Bonus title:

First Snow, Last Light, by Wayne Johnston
This book is set in Newfoundland during a particularly interesting period of the province’s history, which is part of the reason it stood out. And it offered a mystery: what happened to Ned Vatcher’s parents, who disappeared into a stormy night, never to be seen again? I got sucked in by the quirky side characters, some of whom were likeable and some of whom were not. And Ned Vatcher himself is a mystery. It’s his story, and he remains aloof and outside of it.

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