Bonnie Burnard, whose debut novel A Good House was a national bestseller and winner of the Giller Prize, died on Saturday. She was 72 years old.
"I knew that Bonnie had been unwell for some time but this is still a shock," her long-time editor and publisher Phyllis Bruce told The Globe. "She was wonderfully gifted, a revelatory writer. Nobody could understand the emotional ties and demands of family as she could. I will miss her very much."
Burnard's body of work was slim, consisting of two short-story collections and two novels, but those books earned her a host of prizes. Her first collection of stories, 1988's Women of Influence, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, while her second, 1994's Casino & Other Stories, won the Saskatchewan Best Book of the Year Award and was a finalist for the first-ever Giller Prize. (It lost to M.G. Vassanji's The Book of Secrets.)
She won the prize five years later on the strength of her first novel, A Good House, a multigenerational family drama which chronicles the lives of the various members of a small-town Ontario family, the Chambers, throughout the second half of the 20th century. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, the late Carol Shields called it "the finest novel published in some years in our country."
Describing her first encounter with A Good House, her current literary agent, Jackie Kaiser, said that "I felt like I knew the characters in her novel better than I knew my own family." Burnard's greatest gift as an author, she said, "was for creating on the page something resembling the intimacy of the living, breathing world women inhabit. She brilliantly portrayed the intricacies and nuances of women's lifelong friendships and our complicated, crucial relationships with husbands and children – always with empathy, tenderness, and clear-eyed candour."
Despite – or perhaps because of – the commercial success that accompanied her winning the Giller Prize, Burnard only published one more book after A Good House, 2009's Suddenly, a portrait of the lives of three lifelong friends.
Her other honours include the Marian Engel Award, which she received from the Writers' Trust of Canada in 1995. She was also a two-time Giller Prize juror.
"An elegant and meticulous writer, her prose was deceptively spare," said Iris Tupholme, publisher of HarperCollins Canada. "Yet, she understood the complexities of family life and excavated those relationships with precision and compassion. Bonnie was a keen observer of life with a wry sense of humour and a Prairie practicality which informed all of her work."
Burnard was born in Petrolia, Ont., not far from Sarnia, in 1945. She attended the University of Western Ontario and, after getting married, spent two decades in Saskatchewan, where she began her writing career. She returned to London after her marriage ended, where she lived the rest of her life.
She was "smart and entertaining company, assertive and opinionated and compassionate and thoughtful," wrote her friend and fellow writer, Joan Barfoot, in an e-mail. "Also like, probably, a lot of writers (certainly me, as well) she was less easy with spoken words than written ones. With those she was very careful and precise, and as a result, especially for careful readers, caught some of the real delicacies and graces of real, recognizable lives. Her work was the reverse of flashy, but that meant it had genuineness and depth."
Burnard is survived by three children. A memorial celebration of her life and work will be held in London on Friday, and a full obituary is forthcoming.