My interest in the similarities between Australian and Canadian English-language fiction now extends for more than two decades. For me, last year was a particularly good year for reading Australian books, which caused that interest to bubble to the top of the brew recently — so I thought exploring the “why” and providing some examples might be useful to visitors here.
Canberra and Ottawa may be 10,000 miles apart (the actual number is 9,997.86) but the two nations have had something in common ever since Captain James Cook mapped their Pacific Coasts on his voyages in the late 18th century. Both were colonized by the British — while it is true that Australia started as a penal colony, there is a good argument that the dispossessed, misfits and remittance men who settled Canada were just a step ahead of being candidates for exportation to Australia.
Both nations came of age on comparable tracks. As Dominions, both sent troops to fight in the Great War (mainly as fodder, frankly) — significantly in both cases, the decision to join that war was made in London because neither nation yet had control of its own foreign policy. That final achievement of independence came for both with the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
In their early history, Australia and Canada were equally cruel in their treatment of the indigenous peoples on their land — the importation of diseases like smallpox was followed by the introduction of the devastating effects of alcohol and arms. Both had “mission” schools designed to undermine, even destroy, native cultures — the experience described in Porcupines and China Dolls (see the earlier post) in Canada has its counterpart in Australia’s Stolen Generations, an evocative phrase if ever there was one. The exploitative environment and mine in Carpentaria have a host of parallels in native communities across Canada.
Both are now prosperous First World nations, albeit with small populations (Canada’s 31 million versus Australia’s 21 million). Both are proud members of the Group of 8, although the debate would be long and hard about which ranks seventh and which eighth in that group.
Both also have a very large land mass where that population is settled. Perhaps the factor that most influences the similarities in fiction (beyond the shared history) is that the small population of both countries is centred on the coast or border, leaving an immense frontier that to this day is wilderness. It may be desert in Australia and forest and tundra in Canada — it is an ideal setting for a novelist. Margaret Atwood’s initial critical work on Canadian fiction was titled Survival; many of its observations are equally applicable to Australian works.
The two previous posts on this blog — Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie and
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright — explore in some depth two somewhat comparable stories of indigenous people in Canada and Australia in the current world. Here are thumbnail descriptions of a few other pairs that I have found comparable — if you have read and liked one, I think you would find the other equally interesting:
The Secret River, by Kate Grenville
The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaege
Both these novels concern the early English exploration and settlement of the two nations. In Grenville’s book, the Thornhill’s are a convict family, sent to Sydney. They follow up on rumors of the availability of land on the Hawkesbury River — disaster ensues. The Englishman’s Boy is somewhat different in that it has both an “exploration” story of an English big game hunter in Western North America (one of those remittance men) told in parallel with a Hollywood setting 50 years later where a producer wants to make a movie of the story. For an excellent recent review of this book (from a neutral British source), check out Max at Pechorins Journal. I am not a big fan of traditional historical novels; both these books impressed me. Vanderhaege’s The Last Crossing and Grenville’s new book, The Lieutenant (which I have not yet read) promise a similar comparison.
The Last Magician, by Janette Turner Hospital
Two Strand River, by Keith Maillard
This comparison is a bit of a cheat since both these books are out of print, but used copies do show up online — I am including them because it is the first direct comparison between Canadian and Australian novels that I remember. Maillard’s book is one of my all time favorites; he describes it as an adult fairy tale about “a boy who should have been a girl and a girl who should have been a boy.” The stunning conclusion takes this story into the Shaman world of the Pacific Coast nations of British Columbia. I was struck by the similarity with Turner Hospital’s book (which she actually wrote while living in Canada, but I’m not going to argue that she is Canadian) when it was first published in 1992. The Last Magician also begins with some offbeat sexuality — this time a “posh” girl who has turned to prostitution and then expands into a paranormal world, just as Two Strand River does. If you can find them, both are excellent reads.
Breath, by Tim Winton
Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay
The idea of escape from the urban areas into communities in the modern frontier is the common thread to these two novels. While Breath is a coming-of-age novel, it is set on the rugged coast of Western Australia where two would-be young surfers come under the influence of the guru, Sando, and his woman, a couple who are escaping from the “civilized” world in search of a less alienating, but equally risky, community. Hay’s book centres on a cast of characters who also have rejected urban Canada — in their case, the new community centres on the Yellowknife CBC station. Their embrace of the frontier climaxes in an attempt to retrace the route of the English explorer, John Hornby, whose party starved to death in the Arctic barrens in 1927. Both Winton and Hay have impressive backlists and stand in the front rank of authors writing in English — these two books are excellent examples of their work.
The Spare Room, by Helen Garner
Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott
I didn’t particularly like either of these books for the same reason (too sentimental), but a lot of readers whom I respect raved about both — so I suspect others might come to a very different conclusion than I did. In Endicott’s book, Clara Purdy, a childless, middle-age woman, has a car crash that changes her life. The female passenger in the car that she hit is hospitalized for an extended period and Purdy looks after her children, discovering her own over-powering maternal instincts in the process. In The Spare Room, Helen offers to house and help her friend Nicola who has come to Melbourne for some questionable treatment of an apparently terminal cancer. Relations between the two degenerate under the tension — like Good to a Fault it is an exploration of how deeper feelings get aroused, create tension and are eventually resolved. For an e-interview with the author and a link to a more positive review of The Spare Room, check out dovegreyreader here.
A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Just as escape from the city to the frontier is a common theme, the notion of escaping the country to a nearby one shows up in both Canadian and Australian fiction. In MacDonald’s novel, the author explores the abusive childhood of Frances Piper in a coal-mining community on Cape Breton. She eventually escapes to New York — but is drawn back home in a harrowing conclusion to this far-reaching novel. In Toltz’s novel, Jasper Dean faces an equally challenging and disruptive childhood, leading to a story that expands beyond Australia to Paris and the jungles of Thailand. While these novels were first published more than a decade apart (1996 and 2008), they both represent examples of what I call “the widescreen novel” as it is being produced out here in the former colonies.
Those comparisons represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction (you’ll note the absence of some of the most famous names like Carey, Atwood and Munro). And I acknowledge that I have left New Zealand and Canada’s French language literature off my map. Other comparisons would certainly be welcome in the comments — it is an area that I am certainly interested in pursuing further.
There is one significant barrier to a serious, timely exploration of this project, however. While the sun may have set on the British Empire decades ago, remnants remain — especially in the book publishing world. An Australian who wants to read Canadian fiction (and vice versa) has to choose between the option of punishing shipping charges or patiently waiting until a UK publisher makes a version available there and then taking advantage of the Book Depository’s free world-wide shipping (thank god for that). Just a small reminder of the Mother Country, I guess — and how boring would life be if booklovers didn’t face some challenge in acquiring volumes that they really want.