Whoo! Canada Reads! Whoo!
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the country (or those in the country who read) joins in the communal bookclub that is Canada Reads. Five books enter the radio arena, one book leaves. And this year, after much thought, I have decided to throw my considerable literary heft (I’ve been eating a lot of pasta lately) behind:
Now, full disclosure: I have not yet read all the nominees. In fact, Fruit is the only novel I’ve read so far. But let’s take a look at the other contestants:
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill – Critically acclaimed. Best seller. Winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Overall Best Book Award, as well as the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Doesn’t need the help.
The Outlander by Gil Adamson – Critically acclaimed debut novel. Published in many countries. Winner of the American Hammett Prize for Crime-Writing, the ReLit Award for best novel, and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Again, has had more than its fair share of the literary pie.
The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay – Ok, great title. But Tremblay is an icon in the Canadian arts community, and has won the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. He ain’t suffering for plaudits.
Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards – Co-winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2000. Won the Canadian Booksellers Association award for author of the year and fiction book of the year. Adams is a fixture on any list of modern Canadian literary heavywieghts.
My point is, Canada Reads is a chance to unearth some real Canadian gems, and in the past has brought my attention to some novels often overlooked. But this year? Safe choices. Too safe, too cozy. Why nominate these novels? Yes, they are all of fine quality, but let’s bring someone new out into the spotlight. There’s always a few titans represented every year, but- and not to take anything away from these authors – it takes no brains to promote something from Margaret Atwood, whereas it takes a little bit more thought to push a Paul Hiebert or a Jacques Poulin.
Brian Francis is the true underdog in this contest, and on that basis alone is worth rooting for. But Fruit is such a wonderfully strange coming-of-age novel, such a beautifully weird story, that I can’t help but be a booster for the cause. Fruit was one of the reasons I contacted ECW Press with my manuscript; if they’ll publish a novel about a sexually-confused young boy who talks to his nipples, they’ve probably got a pretty good sense of humour.
Fruit (published in the U.S. as The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington) is Paddington’s tale of exquisitely slow (and funny) self-awareness. At the start, Peter is overweight, lonely, and prone to flights of fancy rather than mingle with others his own age. As his life continues, Peter begins to learn, if not understand, that he might not be an ideal fit for the life his parents want for him. His talking nipples are only the start of his problems.
Like all the great tales of the slow ascent from youth to maturity, Fruit is really about the craving for acceptance, whether it be from ones parents, peers, or oneself. What separates Fruit from the pack is it’s love of absurdity and unabashed embrace of Peter’s strange, hyper-realistic fantasies. Francis takes a few chances with Fruit, chances that, in the hands of a less-assured writer, might have come across as pretentious rather than charming. There’s no question Peter can be somewhat off-putting, but Francis avoids easy condescension and instead makes Peter an achingly real and confused adolescent.
Fruit is the Canada Reads dark horse, I fear, for a simple reason; it’s funny. God, is it funny.(I’d love to give you a few quotations as examples, but due to my new basement being a labyrinth of cardboard boxes, my copy of Fruit is nowhere to be found.) But CanLit isn’t supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be dark and gloomy, with a historical bent if all goes to plan. But Canadians are funny. Why can’t our celebrated literature be funny as well? So this year, Canada Reads, please vote for Fruit, the funniest novel ever to grace your lists of nominees.
*Another disclosure: I had learned a few weeks previous to the announcement of this year’s picks that an ECW book was a contender, but I could not ascertain the actual title. Given that ECW is a relatively small publisher, I put my odds of being the selection at one chance in twenty. So damn close.