7 Novels Set in Toronto
Tajja Isen recommends Canadian literature that moves out of the wilderness and into the city
In the popular imagination, the idea of Canadian literature is overwhelmingly dominated by imposing landscapes: the vast emptiness of the prairies, a cruel wilderness that tests the limits of human survival. It makes sense that such settings would loom large––many of the country’s most influential works of literature have pitted their characters against powerful, indifferent forces of nature. And it can get dangerous out there.
But Canada’s cities are vital literary spaces, too; none more than Toronto. Smaller than the favored literary settings of New York or Boston (and with a much more easily mastered subway system), the city’s geography has received loving treatment from some of Canada’s leading writers, both past and contemporary. The following list keeps its focus to the 21st century, giving the most cutting-edge look into the streets of the literary city. Here are seven novels that immerse us in the geography of Toronto.
Brother by David Chariandy
Brother, Chariandy’s second novel, is a taut and elegant depiction of Black masculinity. The story follows two brothers, Michael and Francis, as they come of age in a suburb of Toronto. The novel’s setting is a character all its own: it takes place in Scarborough, a suburb to the east of Toronto predominantly comprised of South Asian, Chinese, and Black communities. Chariandy’s sentences are tense and precise as he takes you through the streets and housing complexes of Scarborough, with the novel building to a devastating act of police violence. The opening section, with follows the brothers as they climb a hydro pole into the sky, offers a stunning vantage from which to regard one of Toronto’s most culturally vibrant areas.
What We All Long For by Dionne Brand
Brand is an icon in Canadian literature, and this is a strong contender for the definitive Toronto novel. A poet, nonfiction writer, novelist, and teacher, Brand has produced seminal work across multiple genres. What We All Long For follows a diverse group of four young friends––an artist, a poet, a courier and a retail worker––as they pursue their passions (which often include one another) in early-aughts Toronto. The novel is alive with the rhythms and sounds of the city; the mechanical music of the subway train. Following Carla, the bike courier, as she tears across the city’s paths is a vivid way to navigate Toronto’s streets.
How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
Subtitled “A Novel From Life,” Heti’s autofictional novel received considerable attention in the US upon its publication. The book, though, is distinctly Torontonian. It follows the narrator, Sheila, as she attempts to answer the novel’s titular question, one that gives rise to a host of others: what does it mean to authentically create art? How far can you go in turning the material of your own life into fiction? What about if that material is drawn from the life of your friend, an artist in a different medium? How far is too far? The novel generously borrows from the lives and words of Heti’s friends, a group of artists in Toronto, and turns the same keen, inquisitive eye on the city that is home to them all.
Reproduction by Ian Williams
Recently shortlisted for the 2019 Toronto Book Award, Williams’s debut novel––though he’s previously published poetry and short stories––traces the making, breaking, and remaking of a multigenerational family over decades in the suburbs of Toronto. The novel begins with a central couple––Felicia, a teenager from an unnamed Caribbean island, and Edgar, the much-older heir of a wealthy German family—who meet in the hospital room where both their mothers lay dying. Their unlikely coupling is the catalyzing event for decades of interpersonal mishaps. Williams is interested in the question of what makes a family; how choice can be more important than blood. Polyphonic and big-hearted, the novel cycles between the center of Toronto and the suburbs around it, giving a geographical picture as kinetic as the story it tells.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
Alexis’s novel opens in Toronto’s oldest bar, the Wheat Sheaf Tavern—currently closed for renovation, to the concern of its local regulars––where the gods Hermes and Apollo are out for a drink. Their banter about the nature of humanity and the merits of human language culminates in a divine challenge: “I’ll wager a year’s servitude,” Apollo says, that “any animal . . . would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” They settle on dogs and decide to grant them the questionable favor. What follows is a brutal, comedic adventure as the title’s fifteen dogs wander the streets of Toronto, grappling with an ability they never asked for. The text is even prefaced by a two-page map, which helps orient the reader within Alexis’s street-corner-level specificity.
Magnified World by Grace O’Connell
O’Connell’s debut centers on Maggie, whose mother has recently taken her own life by filling her pockets with zircon stones and walking into the Don River. In the midst of their grief, Maggie and her father are left to run the family shop, a New Age store located on Queen Street West––one of Toronto’s most vibrant art and design districts. Shortly after losing her mother, Maggie starts to experience blackouts and encounters with a mysterious, slightly menacing stranger who seems to know something about her mother’s past in the American South. For water-clear prose, a sensitive depiction of grief, and fine-grained local detail on one of the city’s most distinctive neighborhoods, O’Connell’s novel delivers.
The Unpublished City: Volume I & II edited by Dionne Brand, Canisia Lubrin, and Phoebe Wang
The two volumes of The Unpublished City anthology are curated by different writers—Dionne Brand for the first; Canisia Lubrin and Phoebe Wang for the second––but each brings together the work of several emerging Toronto writers. Collecting poems and short prose pieces across a diverse range of contributors, the collection highlights both the city’s range of underrepresented literary voices and the impossibility of characterizing Toronto through a single pair of eyes.