I'll be interested to hear others' responses to this query, so I hope
lots of folks jump in. The first guiding principle needs to be this:
"avoid anything studied in highschool". Such works are poisoned. That
said, here are a few that I enjoy. None are especially "canonical" and
the oldest is 1977. I've used the first two successfully in first and
second year courses, but I think the others would also fare well:
Timothy Findley's _The Wars_ -- while this isn't Findley's best novel
(in my estimation that place is reserved for _Famous Last Words_), it
offers some interesting narrative structures, an interesting revisionist
WWI history. It can be neatly coupled with poetry by Siegfried Sassoon
and Wilfred Owen.
Graham Swift's _Waterland_. This is one of my favourite novels. It is
longish for your purposes (~350 pages), but I had a second-year class
that absolutely loved it--even though it came at the end of term. The
central character and narrator is a history teacher who replaces his
official curriculum with his own family history--including his own
adolescence. Again, issues of narrative structure are rich, so is
character study, so is imagery and language.
Michael Ignatief's _Scar Tissue_ is a poignant story of an adult son
dealing with his mother's death. Ignatief, a Canadian expat best known
for non-fiction, is a brilliant stylist, develops a really moving
character-rich piece in quite a compact novel.
For something more "popular" in feel, try Brian Moore's _Lies of
Silence_ a suspense thriller about an IRA bomb threat written by another
Canadian expat. who also wrote _The Robe_. No schlochmeister. It feels
popular but is rich in material -- character, narrative strategy, etc.
It is also a short page turner, which means it will be easy to get your
students to read it.
Barry Unsworth's _Morality Play_. Set in 14th C. It follows a cleric who
abandons his order to join a troupe of players, who themselves are just
shifting from Mystery play to Morality play. They are, in fact, enacting
a local murder and the tension is superbly handled as they discover
their play is about to cut too close. Again, a great story, a short
novel (<200pgs.) and rich with stuff to write about.
You'll notice I managed to throw in three Canadians (granted 2 are
expat, and none of the novels is set here). Although I've only taught
the first two in conditions similar to the ones you're thinking about, I
think any of the others would work well, too.
O.K., so there are no women represented on my list, well let me make
matters worse and actively remove a woman from consideration. Don't do
Margaret Atwood's _Surfacing_ or _Edible Woman_. Those two novels are
indeed short enough to fit in to a writing course, but so is billy club,
and the billy club doesn't bludgeon quite as bluntly. Having to read
those in my own first years of university turned me off Can Lit for a
decade, and the novels weren't even so boringly dated then as they are
now. Later Atwood, like _Alias Grace_ is better fiction but probably too
long and complex for your first-year course. Better yet, would be Anne
Michaels' _Fugitive Pieces_ but it may also be too complex for your
purposes. Shena Mackay's _Orchard of Fire_ is probably more in keeping
with your needs, and is a great read too.
Have fun designing that course.
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