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British writer Richard Beard on what Giller Prize books taught him about Canada

Stack of books

Nataliya Arzamasova/iStock

Until 2017, I knew little about Canada beyond some common preconceptions. Here was a large, wild country punctuated by interesting cities and inhabited by amiable realists. Luckily, such an ill-formed view guaranteed my neutrality as a judge for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize. I knew nothing; therefore I had everything to learn, and reading the 112 prize contenders has been a thorough education.

In the space of a year, through Canada's fiction, I've lived with the rich and the poor, in major cities and ice-bound cabins, in the Canadian past and far into the Canadian future. I've toured the country not by car or plane, but by thumbing down the stories published in 2017 by the country's working writers.

Canadian fiction, I soon discovered, contains a serious amount of weather. A walk back from the pub, late at night, can be charged with drama by a sudden drop in temperature. No wonder, then, that the Arctic north continues to operate a magnetic pull on the national imagination. The fiercest weather Canada has to offer makes for a compelling narrative background, and despite some glorious bursts of summer the made-up Canadian outdoors is mostly cold and unforgiving.

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Which is why so many Canadians own a toque, or tuque. Or a tuc. Writers can't agree on the spelling and I have to be careful what I say about this. Several years ago, another British judge noticed the prominence of the "little wooly hat" in Canadian fiction, and somehow made this innocuous headwear into an example of literary parochialism. I, on the other hand (once I'd looked up the word) was simply glad to know something every Canadian knows. My integration through fiction had begun: first what Canadians wear, then where they live.

Architecturally, the basement dominates the fictional Canadian home. Teenagers use the basement for drugs and sex, an underground free-state where secrets can be confided, mistakes made and plots advanced. I also now have an idea, however unreal, of where Canadians go on holiday. You (or not you, but your fictional representatives) pack up the truck for a road trip to the cabin on the lake. At this point, as a responsible reader, I ought to offer a warning: An intense event is likely to blight your best-laid plans. Given the literary consensus on this, I'm surprised anyone leaves the house.

Of course none of my impressions of Canada is true, strictly speaking, to Canadian reality. Everything I've learned is made up, otherwise it wouldn't have been eligible for the prize. However, as a believer in make-believe, I want to suggest that fiction, especially in 2017, offers privileged access to an understanding of the state of the Canadian country.

Dig into Canada's fictional seam, to see what the country is made of, and in 2017 the evidence suggests a Canada fizzing with exciting combinations and combustions. As my fellow juror André Alexis eloquently summarized in his feel for this year's Scotiabank Giller longlist: "A year of outliers, of books that were eccentric, challenging or thrillingly strange, books that took us to amusing or disturbing places."

This year's Canadian fiction exhibited a striking diversity in genre and voice, and ranged in subject matter from prehistory to future dystopias. So much for my preconceptions: I remember few servings of maple syrup, and in all these stories only two disconsolate moose, one of them run down by a truck. Among the varied genres on offer, none could be described as amiable realism.

What I did discover, I think, is some essence of Canada now, as exposed by its contemporary novels and stories. Here, as elsewhere, the future of the planet looks bleak. Whatever else Canadians want for their children, it doesn't include climate-change catastrophe aggravated by shrinking resources and roaming homeless scavengers. If the answers lie abroad, then the 2017 collection of books showed no fear of going to look for them, travelling the world over to inhabit distant lives with the compassion for which fiction is uniquely adapted.

Back at home, disparate voices clamour to be heard inside the Canadian head. In stories of the immigrant experience I've encountered uneasiness, anger, some hope, but the literature, as with the country, is haunted by unsettled spirits. To read Canada as it is today includes overdue engagement with the precarious daily existence and long memory of Indigenous peoples. New old voices are rising out of the collective unconscious, pushing toward the light.

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But in 2017 I noticed something else: an unexpected though widespread motif, common enough through the books to create a recognizable pattern. In Canadian stories, in 2017, people go missing.

Canada's nagging contemporary fear, as revealed by its literary fiction, is the VMA, otherwise known to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and now also to me as the voluntary missing adult. This is often literal: a plot line that involves fictional Canadians disappearing without trace. A character is there, living an accountable life in a stable community and then they are not. No obvious crime has been committed and the police even when informed aren't much help. Adults go missing, apparently voluntarily: No one knows if they're dead or alive.

Once I'd identified this recurring plot device (although it's more than that) the anxiety seemed transferable to other books as metaphor. Characters go missing to sudden mental illness, to the breaking agonies of middle life, to chronic opioid addiction or a dislocating trauma from the past. One morning, any morning, someone you love may disappear. And here's the strange thing, as imagined in this year's literary output: The VMA may be the lucky one, to have escaped the worries of the world.

I can't say exactly what this means. The anxiety might reflect on an era (our own) in which people are relentlessly in contact. In real life, given the touch of so many screens, it's hard to go missing for long. Or perhaps it's a fixation that grieves the stability of an idealized past, when people fictional or otherwise reliably stayed where and who they were. In the good old days, characters used to act in character.

I did eventually set foot in non-fiction Canada, at the end of August. As I travelled from the airport into downtown Toronto, fresh from my summer of Canadian reading, I was irresistibly reminded of the value of fiction: The city, even from the freeway, felt vibrantly inhabited, complex, storied. I knew from the Giller that every Canadian has a story, and the Canadians I saw on the sidewalks were fully realized human beings lifted from the pages of this year's novels and short stories. My intimate familiarity with the narratives of Canada slipped me into apartments and offices and shops, where Canadian individuals were leading Canadian lives, experiencing the universal range of human emotions.

This was the year I found out that Canada is well served by its disparate guild of writers. And opening the books of 2017, time after time, I registered the many regional and federal grants that had helped make so much of this writing possible. I couldn't help but be impressed. The creation of a national mythology is an ancient, noble, infinitely renewing endeavour, and my made-up vision of Canada exists in partnership with the reality of a supportive literary culture. These books exist, in part, thanks to arts councils from Alberta to Nova Scotia, from Quebec to Newfoundland and Labrador.

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The Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts mean a national investment in fiction is real and rewarded many times over, and this, too, is an important truth about Canada now. What an amazing place for books, and therefore also for life.

Richard Beard's most recent book is The Day That Went Missing, a memoir.

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