The Best English-Canadian Novel of All Time

What’s the best English-Canadian novel of all time? Admittedly, when speaking of Canadian novels, all time isn’t a very long time, less than 250 years. {BTW, I’m not including French-Canadian novels. I don’t know them well enough.}

The History of Emily Montague (1769) is usually considered the first Canadian novel. Although there were dozens of novels published in the 19th century, CanLit didn’t really get off the ground until the 20th century. But I digress. This isn’t a history lesson.

The best English-Canadian novel is … drumroll please … The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, published in 1996.

I can hear dissent. I don’t mind. When it comes to books, I’m opinionated. As for the dissent, I’ll address some of it. “What about Nobel-prize winner Alice Munro?” Well, Munro wrote one book published as a novel, which is actually a collection of inter-linked short stories, albeit an excellent collection. “What about an Atwood or Lawrence novel?” Worthy of consideration, but I vote for The Englishman’s Boy. “What about novels by Hugh McClelland, Michael Ondaatje, Rudy Wiebe, Lisa Moore, or Miriam Toews?” Again, all worthy, but give me The Englishman’s Boy.

Here’s why. In a nutshell, The Englishman’s Boy delivers the best combination of prose and plot. A literary double play. The writing is masterful. Vanderhaeghe’s painterly descriptions and perfect sentences are somehow direct and poetic at the same time. The storyline is just as masterful. You get a captivating page-turner that spans generations. I won’t elaborate on the plot. Suffice to say that it pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

I’m not the only person who thinks Vanderhaeghe is a master. He’s won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction (one was for The Englishman’s Boy). His prose has been lauded by many. For example, Rick Salutin extolled its virtues in the ‘Globe and Mail,’ claiming that Vanderhaeghe’s sentences were works of art (I’m paraphrasing Salutin). The Englishman’s Boy was turned into a mini-series (which was almost as good as the novel). That is a tribute to the plot, and is a rare thing in itself – see: Are Movies Better Than Books?

When I want to read a Canadian classic that delivers both excellent prose and plotting, I open the The Englishman’s Boy.

Style AND Substance: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.

Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.

The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.

The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Heighton

A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.

The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.