Canada is a special place, and that’s made even more evident by these authors and their impactful works, which are all heavily influenced by the country—its politics, socio-economics, history, and landscape. So if you’re interested in exploring our country’s identity through critically acclaimed novels, add these books to your reading list.
Marian Engel – Bear (1976) The erotic tale of a librarian in Northern Ontario, who develops a shocking relationship with a tame bear, was the subject of much controversy when it was published in 1976. Despite its provocative plot, critics have described it as a story that explores Canadian identity from the unique perspective of a woman isolated in the wilderness. Marian Engel’s body of works includes novels, short stories, and children’s books. She died in 1985.
Carol Shields – Unless (2002) Carol Shields, an American-born naturalized Canadian, rose to prominence as an author with The Stone Diaries, which won the 1993 Governor General’s Award and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her final novel, Unless, tells the fictitious story of a mother whose happy life is turned upside-down when her eldest daughter runs away and is found panhandling on the street in Toronto with a sign that reads “Goodness” around her neck.
Lawrence Hill – The Book of Negroes (2007) This fictional novel follows the life story Aminata Diallo as she is abducted from her West African village at the age of 11 and forced into slave labour at a Southern U.S. plantation. She later gains safe passage to Nova Scotia as a Black Loyalist and eventually returns to her home continent. The title refers to her need to register her name in the historic “Book of Negroes” to travel to Canada. Author Lawrence Hill—the son of a black father and a white mother—grew up in a predominantly white Toronto suburb in the 1960s.
Robertson Davies – Fifth Business (1970) When 10-year-old Dunstable Ramsay dodges a snowball intended for him, he opens the way for an unintended target: a pregnant woman who goes into premature labour as a result of the icy blow. What follows shapes the future of all those involved. The novel is a fictional, autobiographical open letter, written by Ramsay as he retires as a private school professor. It is the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, named for the Ontario village where the story begins. Davies was also a playwright journalist and professor, serving as the founding Master of Massey College for graduate students at the University of Toronto.
Miriam Toews – A Complicated Kindness (2004)Nomi Nickel is a disgruntled teenager growing up with her father in a small Mennonite town in Southern Manitoba after the departure of her mother and sister. “Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock,” she narrates in the first chapter of the novel. “That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.” Author Miriam Toews, born to Mennonite parents in Manitoba, has also worked as a journalist.
Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace (1996) Award-winning author Margaret Atwood has dozens of publications, including novels, children’s books, poetry anthologies, short fiction collections and non-fiction works.Alias Grace is an historical fiction novel about Grace Marks, an Ontario maid convicted of killing the man she served and his housekeeper, who was also his mistress. A stable hand was also convicted of the notorious 1843 murders north of Toronto. The story follows Grace as she serves a life sentence, all while claiming she has no memory of her involvement in the vicious murders.
Roméo Dallaire – Shake Hands with the Devil (2003) Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire details his failed efforts to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide as the commander of a meager United Nations peacekeeping force. His calls for assistance from the international community to help his team in the small East African country went unheard as more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days. His humanitarian work continued after he was appointed to the Senate in 2005, representing the Liberals for Quebec. He resigned from the Senate in June 2014.
Hubert Aquin – Next Episode (1965) Written in French under the title Prochain episode, and later translated to English, this semi-autobiographical work follows an unnamed narrator as he drifts from his current stay in the psychiatric ward of a Montreal prison to the spy novel he is writing as he awaits trial accused of revolutionary crimes. It speaks to the cultural and political aspirations during a tumultuous time in the Quebec separatist movement. Aquin shot himself in March 1977, ending his own life.
Michael Ondaatje – In the Skin of a Lion (1987) Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s, this love story and mystery explores the roles of immigrants in building Canada’s largest city. The fictional tale is inspired by historical documentation. An immigrant himself, Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and came to Canada via London, England in 1962. This novel was followed by The English Patient, which was adapted to film in 1996, winning multiple Academy Awards. Ondaatje has also published several books of poetry.
Margaret Laurence – The Stone Angel (1964) As her life nears its end, 90-year-old Hagar Shipley is confronted with a loathsome plan that she spend her final days in a nursing home. The story, set in Manitoba, draws us into her past, revealing how her stubbornness and pride have left her isolated in her old age. Margaret Laurence was born in Manitoba but also lived in England, Ghanam and British Somaliland, Ontario and British Columbia. She took her own life in 1987 at the age of 60, after months of living with advanced lung cancer.
Yann Martel – Life of Pi (2001) This allegoric novel follows Pi Patel, a teenaged Indian boy, as he navigates the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a royal bengal tiger after the sinking of a cargo ship. The novel begins in Toronto, where an adult Patel reminisces about his youth in Pondicherry, India. Yann Martel was born in Spain, studied at Trent University in Ontario, and lives in Montreal.
Alice Munro – Lives of Girls and Women (1971) Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature after a long career of writing short stories, often depicting the female experience of living in small towns and rural parts of Ontario. Lives of Girls and Women chronicles the life of Del Jordan as she grows from child to woman in the Southern Ontario town of Jubilee. It explores her desires of love, sex, and relationships.
Jan Wong – Red China Blues (1996) This is the memoir of a young Canadian of Chinese descent whose Maoist ideals are slowly shattered after she enrolls at Beijing University at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1972. At the time, Jan Wong was one of two Westerners at the university, providing a unique perspective on the People’s Republic of China leading up to and following the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Wong was later the Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail from 1998 to 1994.
Irshad Manji – The Trouble With Islam (2003) A self-described “Muslim refusinik,” Irshad Manji makes a clarion call for reformation in the Islamic world, including empowered women, religious tolerance, and introspection within the faith. Born in Uganda and raised in suburban Vancouver, Manji describes her experience growing up Muslim in British Columbia and her frustration surrounding being part of a faith that refuses to evolve. She has received death threats for her controversial and outspoken beliefs. Manji has worked as a journalist, university instructor, and is behind the YouTube channel Moral Courage TV, which tells the stories of those “who are standing up when others sit down.”