The best Canadian fiction of all time as chosen by Canadian novelists

Ahead of the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, nominees past and present choose their favourite Canuck reads.
The best Canadian fiction of all time as chosen by Canadian novelists

This year, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, which recognizes the best Canadian novel or short story collection with an annual prize of $25,000, turns 20. To mark two decades of Canlit achievment, Chatelaine asked nominees from 1996 to 2016 for their all-time favourite works of home-grown fiction. Click below to see who loves what — and the books you’ll be ordering ASAP. (Hint: Reading Mavis Gallant is basically a patriotic duty.)

This year’s winners will be announced at the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony in Toronto on November 2.

Rogers Writers’ Trust pick Canadian fiction 2016

Anosh Irani is nominated this year for The Parcel, the powerful story of a hijra, a person belonging to the third sex, in Bombay’s red-light district.

Irani’s pick:A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s such an intimate epic. Its scope is tremendous — it reflects the injustice of a nation through the inner lives of four characters: a young Parsi man, an older Parsi woman, and two tailors — but at no point does it lose its humanity. When I first read this novel, it made my insides churn, but it also came with the luminescence that only the highest forms of art can offer.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Irani Anosh

Kerry Lee Powell is nominated this year for her debut collection of short stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, which ispopulated by characters searching for connection.

Powell’s pick: “I’m picking Open Secrets by Alice Munro largely because it contains ‘Vandals,’ one of my favourite Munro stories. It’s set in a kind of anti-Eden, a managed wilderness owned by Ladner, a taxidermist with a dark side who sexually abused Liza, the story’s central character, when she was a child. Liza’s complicated relationship with her abuser and his wife Bea is explored with a delicacy and brutality that made my neck hairs prickle. It was the first time I understood that I could write about trauma without sacrificing grace.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Kerry Lee PowellPhoto, Andrew Buzzell.

Yasuko Thanh is nominated this year for her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, based on the true story of the Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908.

Thanh’s pick: “I discovered Bad Imaginings as a fledgling reader and writer of short stories in 1993: Caroline Adderson’s collection, which displays a panoply of perspectives from a little boy to a chambermaid, a rainmaker to a gold miner, across various eras and locations, showed me what voice in fiction is capable of, the possibilities of what it can do when wielded by a powerful and empathetic hand.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Yasuko ThanhPhoto, Anastasia Andrews.

Katherena Vermette is a Governor General’s Award–winning poet. She is nominated this year for her debut novel, The Break, a family saga about a group of Métis women dealing with the aftermath of a violent crime in their community.

Vermette’s pick:In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier is the book that had the greatest influence on my life. I read it as a teenager, during a really challenging time, and it changed and healed things inside of me. Not only did I see Winnipeg in fiction for the first time, but I also saw myself. To me, this book is the definition of courage and a lesson in the power of story.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Katherena VermettePhoto, Lisa Delorme Meiler.

Michael Helm is a three-time Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominee, including a nod this year for After James, a genre-bender that combines gothic horror, a detective plot, and science-fiction.

Helm’s pick: “The idea of great art is problematic. Some books are formally conservative — Alice Munro’s books are dead-on realist story collections. Others seem to have found whole new forms: What’s Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red or Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (both are usually called novels)? And how to compare books read in translation — Hubert Aquin’s Prochain épisode — from one of our so many languages? So much is subject to chance. Very likely the greatest book is still out there and I don’t yet know it, even as it already knows me. But my pick, today, anyway is The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Michael Helm

Caroline Adderson was nominated in 1999 for her debut novel, A History of Forgetting. Her most recent novel is Ellen In Pieces.

Adderson’s pick:The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant is an astonishing volume containing close to nine hundred pages of perfect sentences —perfect! — arranged with elegance and wit, conveying worlds so richly imagined each story feels like a plunge into a particular time and place: Montreal in the ’30s and ’40s, post-war Europe, Paris in the ’80s.  But the astounding thing about Gallant is her invisible technique. Never do you feel she’s put something in for the sake of plot or characterization. The stories have no obvious structure. Somehow she’s just stuffed life between the covers and slammed the book hard. There it is, pressed onto every one of these pages, a miracle.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Caroline AddersonPhoto, Erich Saide.

Emma Donoghue won the prize in 2010 for her novel Room, which was made into an Oscar-winning movie of the same name last year. Her most recent novel, The Wonder, was released this fall.

Donoghue’s pick: “Of all the Canadian books I binged on when I first moved here 18 years ago, Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel stands tall: cranky, magnificent Hagar Shipley’s last snatch at freedom is all of ours.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Emma DonoghuePhoto, Punch Photographic.

Lee Henderson was nominated in 2008 for his debut novel, The Man Game.

Henderson’s pick(s): “It’s a tie between Marian Engel’s Bear and Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man because the prose is so perfect in both. Both novels are so cunning and so funny, both are about a hero with a magical and bizarre relationship to an animal, and both books seem so profoundly infused with all that is weird about being Canadian.”

The best Canadian fiction of all time as chosen by Canadian novelistsPhoto, Mia Cunningham.

Michael Christie is the author of the short story collection The Beggar’s Garden, for which he was nominated in 2011. His most recent book is a novel, If I Fall, If I Die.

Christie’s pick: “I’ve often made the case for The Wars by Timothy Findley, a short novel, nearly a novella, an efficiently and, I would argue, perfectly told story of the young Canadian officer named Robert Ross, who bears witness to the senseless horrors of the First World War, and manages to retain scraps of his humanity while simultaneously losing his mind. I read this book in high school, and it was the first time I realized that soldiers were all terrified of dying and that war is utterly inhumane. In a world mired in seemingly never-ending conflicts, The Wars reminds us that despite the nationalistic rhetoric of our politicians, war is a grim, unheroic business indeed.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Michael Christie

Michael Crummey was nominated in 2005 for his novel The Wreckage. The recipient of the inaugural Writers’ Trust Fellowship, his most recent novel is Sweetland.

Crummey’s pick:
“It may be cheating to pick this, but for breadth and wit of story-telling, for flawless prose, for sheer, undeniable brilliance, nothing else Canada has produced outshines The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant. It’s a lifetime’s work from one of the few world masters of the form.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Michael Crummey

Esi Edugyan was nominated in 2011 for her novel Half-Blood Blues, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize that same year.

Edugyan’s pick: “One of the most under-appreciated novels ever written in Canada is Sheila Watson’s exquisite The Double Hook. With flinty economy, Watson manages to express multitudes in prose as visceral as it is mysterious. A gorgeous and enduring book.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Esi Edugyan

Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of five novels and two short story collections. He was nominated for the prize in 2005 for A Perfect Pledge.

Maharaj’s pick: “My determination of the best Canadian novel has shifted every couple years from books by Rohinton Mistry and Camilla Gibb to those by Yann Martel, and so on, but the novel that has remained the longest in this “greatest” slot has been Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I have resisted any further rereading of the novel because I know that, for me, the initial glow will continue to diminish, but for an important period in my own writing life, Richler’s imperfect characters and his humorous depiction of outsiders trying to wriggle or storm in offered an important way to present the world, or a slice of it.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Rabindranath Maharaj

Lisa Moore is the author of Caught for which she was nominated in 2013. Her most recent book, Flannery, is a young adult novel.

Moore’s pick: “Perhaps the sexiest and most potent and problematic love affair in Canadian literature is between Morag Gunn and her Metis lover Jules Tonerre in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Laurence is jaggedly honest about the ungovernable force of female sexual desire and how it sometimes crashes against loneliness and pride. She captures sexual hunger, how it lingers and sparks even as we grow old, when it is considered by some unseemly and how vulnerable that makes us, and the quaking need for love and that simpler, more rare thing: companionship. She is honest about class, race, poverty, and prejudice in The Diviners, and strikes a blow against anything that stinks of faux-politeness or moral indignation. She is so honest, in fact, the book was deemed dangerous and banned.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Lisa MoorePhoto, Nathalie Marsh.

Russell Smith is a two-time nominee: in 2004, for his novel Muriella Pent, and in 2015 for his short story collection Confidence.

Smith’s pick:The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is the greatest Canadian novel of all time, and the fact that it is actually about the United States is part of that greatness. It is massively ambitious and far-seeing, being about ideological trends in the centre of global power that would later sweep the entire world, and at once a gripping thriller and a literary novel. In terms of its scope, it is our biggest book.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Russell Smith

Michael Winter been nominated twice: in 2000 for This All Happened and in 2010 for The Death of Donna Whalen. His most recent book is Into the Blizzard, a work of nonfiction.

Winter’s pick: “In The Grey Islands by John Steffler, a stranger comes to town and things happen. Is it a novel? Short stories? I don’t know what to call it: a “good junky bustle,” perhaps. Steffler was in his thirties when he travelled to Newfoundland to spend time on the Grey Islands. I tell my son stories from this book, of the snowplough operator who savagely knocks down Steffler’s fence and then, in summer, returns to repair it — the notion of creating a summer job out of his winter job! The book goes deep into the private and specific observations of a regional place. It’s an accurate depiction of what we do in this country and an emphatic yawp — mixed with melancholy — about the joy (and misery) of being alive.”

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize 2016 Michael Winter

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