Putting together a Lucky 13 piece on 2016’s best books in English by Quebec writers, the thought recurs that there were years, not so long ago, when getting a list up to this count could be a challenge.
Now, it’s a matter of cutting it down — agonizingly, painfully.
Apologies, then, to the many books and writers — some of them featured in these very pages over the past year — who don’t appear below. Reading is a lifelong project, and there are certainly ’16-vintage books you don’t see here that will make their presence felt down the road.
There’s really only one place to start, isn’t there? Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf Canada) has achieved all the success — critical, award-bestowed, and now that initial print under-runs have been corrected, popular — that one literary novel reasonably can.
Rather than try to list all its strengths, then, I’ll single out one. Conveying the broad currents of history, as Thien does with the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, is one thing.
Convincingly depicting the most intimate domestic scenes and family interactions is quite another. Balancing the two is a difficult, delicate thing, a hurdle at which plenty of writers have fallen. But Thien gets it just right.
Pascal Girard’s Nicolas (Drawn & Quarterly, translated by Helge Dascher) is a perfect little book. Jonquière-born cartoonist Girard was 9 when his 5-year-old brother died of lactic acidosis; his (mostly) visual memoir of that experience of loss becomes a study, in deft minimal strokes, of how children learn about mortality and process grief.
As a bonus for this new edition of a book first published in 2008, Girard adds a new section that rejoins the protagonist in adulthood — still processing, still coming to terms.
Information, whether visual or textual, is sparingly deployed, but every detail resonates, and almost any reader will be able to find something of herself in Girard’s world. In that sense, Nicolas is not so “little” at all.