Top 10 Canadian books of the decade

Maclean’s books blogger Brian Bethune picks his favourites

10. Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan (2002)
MacMillan’s revisionist take on the peace treaty that ended the First World War—and gave the world such ongoing headaches as Yugoslavia and Iraq—is a triumph of narrative history, one that downplays anonymous “historical forces” to place individuals like Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George back where they belong, at the centre of events.

9. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
No one has ever found an easy way to sum up Martel’s novel, a surprise—but highly popular—Booker prize winner. That’s only to be expected, considering the storyline: take one teenaged boy—a devout Hindu who also prays to Jesus, Mary and Allah—put him on a lifeboat for some seven months with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan (all soon to disappear) and an enormous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (who causes the disappearances). A long, strange trip indeed, “something so bright, loud, weird and delicate as to stupefy the senses,” as Pi himself says about life in general.

8. This Is My Country, What’s Yours? by Noah Richler (2006)
There are an endless number of lesser matters to quibble over in Richler’s monumental literary atlas of Canada—one of the many great things about the book—but there’s no quarreling with the main themes of this shrewd and subtle consideration of CanLit. Canada is an anti-epic society, born of struggle with an unforgiving land, highly skeptical about authority, and fertile ground for ironic and individualistic novels.

7. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (2007)
Hill has been a very good writer for a long time, a graceful and understated stylist whose latest novel turns a thorny historical subject—the fate of black slaves who served the British in the American Revolution only to be shabbily betrayed in Nova Scotia—into a tour-de-force, an entire era personalized in one superbly realized female character.

6. River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)
Historical fiction is one of the dominant themes within CanLit, and there’s no more subtle and profoundly self-aware example than Crummey’s first novel. The weight of the extinction of the Beothuks, Newfoundland’s aboriginal population and the impossibility of truly understanding the past, hang over this story of mutual and tragic misunderstanding.

5. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (2005)
Nothing haunts the national historical imagination like the Great War. The eternal Canadian novel, the one we keep writing over and over again, is set, at least in part, against the mud and carnage of the Western front. Boyden’s first novel, the tale of two Cree snipers—one broken in body and spirit, the other destroyed morally—is perhaps the finest in a rich tradition.

4. There is a Season by Patrick Lane (2004)
The poet’s account of a year in his life and garden begins when Lane, then 65, was barely two months out of the rehab centre he entered after 45 years of heavy drinking. Memory floods him, much of it harsh to recall (and to read), but there are “moments of such joy that to remember them makes me reel through the thin air of the past.” An exquisite memoir, beautiful in its prose and terrifying in its honesty.

3. Where War Lives by Paul Watson (2007)
The author is the Toronto-born foreign correspondent who snapped the famous 1993 photo of U.S. Army Sgt. William Cleveland’s mutilated corpse being dragged in triumph by a howling mob through Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu. The book is Watson’s account—utterly devoid of self-pity and propelled by an apocalyptic mix of anger, guilt and post-traumatic shock—of the interplay of media and war, and his life since Cleveland’s spirit spoke to him that day: “If you do this, I will own you forever.”

2. The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy (2000)
Few anglophone readers know the work of Soucy; a pity, really, given he’s a writer of genius. This slim novel has more layers of meaning than most far fatter volumes can imagine. A word-drunk, hallucinatory, heartbreaking story of two isolated siblings adrift in a surreal landscape after their abusive father’s suicide.

1. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Atwood has always been an acutely intelligent, viciously funny and stylistically impressive writer. With this dystopian novel, critics started adding prescient to the list of descriptives: a compelling, believable tale of a strange love triangle, a globally warmed—fried, actually—world and the Asperger’s genius who decides to do something about them both.

Top 10 Canadian books of the decade

  1. Most interesting pick: Soucy. Excellent call.
    Strangest omission: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. How can a book this funny not make the cut?

  2. I'm not an avid reader of Atwood, but my girlfriend insisted that I read Oryx and Crake. I did and I've become a huge fan of Atwood. I'm really pleased and surprised it was voted number one.

    • I loved the book but still can't stand listening to Atwood. I wish she would write more books and do less promo activity.

  3. Nominated for longest title and most intriguing adult picture book: "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry" by Leanne Shapton. Please, please read it. It will haunt you and make you look at your stuff in a different light.

  4. Its pretty difficult to compare works of non-Fiction and fiction, I think the list should have stuck to fiction. Richler and MacMillan are worthy choices though; Richler for his ambition, MacMillan for her achievement.

  5. Hey Aaron, my girlfriend once told me to read Margaret Atwood, too. She said Margaret Atwood is so smart and original and that she has this way of touching you like nobody else and she insisted I read her so I can one day touch her like Margaret Atwood does. I was like, yeah, okay, that sounds good. I’ve been meaning to read something of hers for a while and it’ll be fun and new and all intellectually to discuss books together. But, I said, just to clarify, you are talking about her stories, right? I mean, Margaret Atwood has never touched you, right? And she was like, oh yeah, of course, mostly it’s her stories that touch me. Mostly, I asked. What do you mean by mostly? But she didn’t respond. She just stared at me and bit her bottom lip and did this thing where she screams without opening her mouth. But, yeah, long story short, Margie’s a darn good read and I’m also glad she’s on this list.

  6. One of my international history professors at the London School of Economics recommended MacMillan's book as good prep material for one of our exams.

  7. Atwood certainly deserves to be #1 but Oryx and Crake is my least favourite of her novels. The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace were most memorable; Lady Oracle the funniest and most inspiring to a formerly fat girl.

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