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5 must-read books set in Toronto

Toronto is a beautiful city and sets the perfect stage for a novel. From the downtown cityscape to the heritage buildings that seem to emit stories from their very foundations, it is easy to imagine a tale of romance taking place or the plot of a horror story being set in a dark subway tunnel. Many famous authors have used Toronto as the setting of their novels. Here are a few of my favourites.

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

In the Skin of a Lion is by the renowned Canadian-Sri Lankan Michael Ondaatje and is one of the most famous novels set in Toronto. The storyline takes readers back in time to Toronto in the 1930’s and focuses on key themes of that era. The separation of immigrants in Cabbagetown was considered normal at the time, and Ondaatje uses the novel as a way of showing how immigrants are mostly left out of Toronto’s history.

A fictional story develops around R.C Harris, Toronto’s commissioner of Public Works. Harris built several of the city’s most important landmarks, most noticeably the water treatment plant and the Bloor Street Viaduct. In the Skin of a Lion is a story that converges two storylines, between immigrants who built the structures and Harris who commissioned them, leading to a shocking conclusion. Upon moving to Toronto, I read this book and it helped me to understand the true history of this city. Furthermore, Ondaatje captures a sentiment that permeates through Toronto to this day, and it lends a new perspective to living and surviving in the Big Smoke.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat’s Eye is set in Toronto and follows the life of fictional artist Elaine Risley through her childhood in Toronto to her eventual return to her hometown. The novel begins with Risley riding on a streetcar, or the “the iron lung” as Atwood describes it, with two friends. Risley ends up getting bullied by her friends, and almost freezes to death in a ravine mid-way through the book. The setting of the ravine is a common theme in novels set in Toronto because of the recognizable topography in the city. When the artist returns to the city of her birth, she realizes integral things about her past. Atwood really sets the scene of the non-linear relationship all of us have with life. Cat’s Eye discusses a child’s perspective of growing up in Toronto and paints a special picture of the large metropolitan area.

Headhunter by Timothy Findley

Timothy Finley’s Headhunter is a dystopian novel set in Toronto at a time when a disease called sturusemia has swept through the city. The disease is carried by birds and, as a result, the city decides to kill them off.  The storyline is focused around a schizophrenic librarian named Lilah Kemp and two psychiatrists named Kurtz and Marlow, drawing a parallel with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mental illness is rampant and Kurtz uses his wealthy patients to his own ends,

The novel is set around Rosedale and the Parkin Psychiatric Institute based on the Clark Institute of Psychiatry located at University of Toronto’s College St. location. Findley’s perspective of Toronto paints a frightening and fascinating picture of downtown Toronto and its surrounding neighbourhoods.

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies begins in a small town near Toronto known as Deptford, Ont. The central character is Dunstan Ramsay and the novel follows his life from small-town Ontario to big-city Toronto. Ramsay stays in contact with friends from his childhood and always plays a supporting role in their lives instead of taking charge of his own — known as the “fifth business”, a term coined by Davies.

After a series of tragedies occurring in WWI and WWII, Ramsay finds his destiny and his own sense of self. This novel discusses wealth and how dangerous it is in the hands of people who don’t deserve it. Davies draws an interesting connection between academia and capitalism, which is relevant to Toronto’s culture even today. Davies is one of the great Toronto writers in the last century and most of his novels bring in Canadian themes. This book is a great read and every Canadian should be familiar with Davies’ works.

Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig

Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig is a relatively new novel, released in 2008. It is a dystopian novel set in the underground subway tunnels as a disease spreads throughout the city. The setting scene describes Toronto as a cold place, with subway tunnels and ravines that “slice around and under the streets, where the rivers, the Don and the Humber and their tributaries, carve into the heart of the city.” The storyline focuses around a group of girls that contract this disease, and the subsequent result of everyone beginning to die. One of the characters also becomes obsessed with capturing the devastation on film, which is quite fitting considering Toronto is the center of Canadian film. This is a great novel to read on the subway and was even nominated as a must-read by the TTC Toronto book club.

Books about Toronto shed light into various themes and imaginings that plague this city. It is a metropolis that creates endless opportunities for settings in novels that embrace the history of the city and its future. Reading all of these novels often makes me think what I would write? Which setting would I use for my Toronto story? In Canada’s largest city, the options seem endless.

What is your favourite novel about Toronto? Let Women’s Post know in our comments below.