By Richard B. Wright
Note: This post will include some possible spoilers, so if you plan to read Clara Callan, perhaps you may want to bookmark this page and return here upon completion of the novel.
The following is a transcript of an actual conversation I had with a Kiwi buddy. We often ask about the books we are currently reading and when he sawRichard B. Wright's Clara Callan sitting on my desk he asked:
Kiwi: "Is this any good?"
Canadian: "Yes, but you won't like it."
Kiwi: "Why not?"
Canadian: "It's Canlit."
Kiwi: "Canlit? You guys have a word for novels written by Canadian writers?"
Canadian: "Yeah. Don't New Zealanders have a term for novels written by New Zealand writers?"
Kiwi: "Yeah. We call them books."
It's no secret that Canadians are fiercely nationalist. We are not nationalist in the American-jingoist sense of the word but rather in a more self-concious way. Canadians make a sport of fretting over identity and Canadian-ness to the point of fault. It's a by product of sleeping in bed with an elephant. The tired myth of Canadian patches on backpacks round the world has warmed the hearts of millions in the Great White North as a way in which we identify ourselves as "not-American." This obssession with what it means to be Canadian (aka not American) spills over into literature. Canadian readers obssesively read Canadian novels as if it will somehow make them more Canadian. I've not encountered any other readers from any other English-speaking nation that go out of their way to read so many books by writers from their home countries. It's a small part of a larger phenomenon that I have noticed over the past eight years as a Canadian living abroad: Canadians are incorrigibly Canadian.
I prefer to remain pithy on that last statement for now. I, being Canadian, will most assuredly read another Canadian novel before too long. I believe my citizenship would be revoked it I didn't.When I do read another, I promise expound on this theory or incorrigibility further.
Anyway, back to Clara Callan.
If I (or any other Canadian) were to write the stereotypical Canadian novel it would read something similar to Clara Callan. This is not to say that it is a bad book. Far from it. I enjoyed the holy hell out of this book. It's a real page-turner and such and such but it had virtually every element that Canadian writers use in crafting their unique stories of life in the bleak wastelands of the provinces. Everything is stereotypical in this novel: the setting, the characters, the themes. Everything!
But don't take my word for it, Let's put Clara Callan to the test. Here is an informal list of elemets found in a good many Canadian novels. In brackets next to the elements in whether or not Clara Callan contains said elements. It's startling!:
1. Novel set between 1900~1945. (check!)
2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement. (check!)
3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification. (check)
4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men. (check x2)
5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks. (check x2)
6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality. (check!)
7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge. (check!)
8. Story involves a major snowstorm (check!)
10. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism (check!)
11. Story explores multiculturalism. (big miss on this one...)
12. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes. (check!)
Twelve out of thirteen for Clara Callan! If there was any doubt, this book won the Governor General's Award AND the Giller Prize in 2001.
And how could it not?