I was drifting on the moors of a rambling Victorian estate bracketing England and Scotland, feeling the mist and the vastness, when from deep in the fog I heard a voice calling me. It took me a moment to compute and connect – back to reality.
The moors were the setting of Fayne, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel. The voice belonged to my hair stylist, asking me what I thought of the length she had cut away.
Reading Fayne was the best kind of literary experience: I was completely immersed in the story of Charlotte, an adolescent with an unnamed condition who lives with her doting father. Long gone are her mother and the dead brother she never knew – an absence that becomes a mystery.
This novel was so engrossing that it transported me out of this rotten world and into another (also often rotten) world, to the point where I could lose track of myself, even during as critical an activity as a haircut.
It was the same with some of the other best moments of my literary year: books that took me so far into a story, and so far out of my own existence, that they offered true escape.
My big summer novel was Richard Powers’s tree-hugging epic, The Overstory, which I had been eager to read since falling in love with his (much shorter) Bewilderment last year. The Pulitzer-winning Overstory – with its intertwining tales of humans and trees hurtling toward environmental catastrophe – was as rich and lush as the natural world it depicts.
Some of my favourite books this year, on the other hand, were short, readable in a single sitting or two. They include Annick MacAskill’s now Governor-General’s Award-winning poetry collection Shadow Blight, a devastating examination of pregnancy loss. Also Iain Reid’s latest gorgeous/creepy novel We Spread; Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour – another GG winner this year; Small Things Like These by Irish writer Claire Keegan; and Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tom Perrotta’s much-later follow-up to Election.
More of a commitment – and worth every moment – was Tsering Yangzom Lama’s masterpiece We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies. Set primarily in Tibet, Nepal and Canada, this intergenerational novel examines life in exile with language and ideas that pierce your soul and flood your senses.
Heather O’Neill’s When We Lost Our Heads was another fiction highlight. I loved this twisted smash-the-patriarchy story of two young friends in late 19th-century Montreal who, forced to separate, ultimately make their mark on history.
The book I have recommended more than any other this year is Sarah Polley’s Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, which I tore through like some sort of literary binge-watch. I kept telling myself I would read only one essay at a time, but I couldn’t stop myself from continuing on to the next and the next. Until, faster than you can say “the Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” I had consumed the whole thing.
Another book that I could not put down, despite the almost tangible pain rising from its pages, was Holden After and Before: Love Letter for a Son Lost to Overdose. It’s written by former Vancouver broadcaster Tara McGuire, whose son died of an accidental overdose in 2015, a few days before his 22nd birthday.
In this genre-bending memoir, McGuire writes about her son’s life – not just real events but also imagined ones – as she tries to piece together moments she was not there to witness, including his final hours.
This book is in no way an escape that will transport you out of your life and experiences; rather, it merges another’s with your own. Another feat – gift – of a very good book.
Marsha Lederman is the author of Kiss the Red Stairs (Penguin Random House Canada, 2022)