When I first read In The Skin of a Lion, by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, I was hanging out with someone who lived at Broadview and Danforth in the east end of the city. Seeing as how I was based on the west end, it meant that every time I would visit, I would travel over the Bloor Street Viaduct, which, if you’ve read the book, you know plays a major role. In fact, the whole story is about the building of Toronto, and the workers—mostly immigrants—that made it happen. It’s a fictional account, but riding the subway to Broadview station, as I was reading about this imagined history, felt like a small, but special acknowledgement. And, it made my reading experience a little richer, bringing the words on the page to a real and focused space that I was very much a part of.
There’s a certain pleasure about spotting your neighborhood or hometown in popular culture. Finding the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall in Mean Girls or the famous Yonge Street spot, Zanzibar, in Suicide Squad gives you a little thrill, as if you’re in the know. It’s the same with books.
So here, we’ve rounded up a few novels that feature Toronto, see if you can spot the familiar spaces when you decide to pick one up to read for yourself.
Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill
Redhill was 2017’s recipient of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and so Bellevue Square is a great way to kick off our list. The title of course references Bellevue Square Park in Kensington Market, and plenty of the story’s references are identifiable in the market itself. The novel is about Jean, a bookstore owner who discovers she has a doppelganger and becomes more and more obsessed with finding out who the woman is.
Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Jalaluddin writes for the Toronto Star and has been a guest on Cityline, so Toronto makes sense as a setting for her novel Ayesha At Last. Though I’ve yet to crack this book open, it is on my must-read list. It’s about a Muslim woman who navigates her career dreams, financial woes and the expectation of an arranged marriage. Things are unexpectedly made more complicated when she falls for her cousin’s fiancée.
Headhunter by Timothy Findley
Set in dystopian Toronto, the dark novel, Headhunter includes elements of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, and centers around a mysterious bird flu (or something similar) that has decimated the city. Expect to find psychiatric institutions, mobsters and maybe a touch of terrifying magic.
Magnified World by Grace O’Connell
This 2012 novel, Magnified World begins with a description of a Toronto streetcar on Queen Street West and the fact that Maggie’s mother recently committed suicide by walking into the Don River. Exploring grief and the curiosity of a parent’s past, Maggie also has to contend with her own health issues.
Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy
Gowdy’s main character in Little Sister, Rose, manages a Toronto cinema, and begins to experience strange out-of-body experiences during a summer full of electrical storms. As she grapples with her past, her mother’s health issues and her own desire for connection, Toronto plays a recognizable backdrop, even if the cinema isn’t real.
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
Although not based in downtown Toronto, anyone who grew up just outside of the city in the suburbs with feel that tug of familiarity from reading Leung’s novel about Scarborough—even though it takes place in the 1970s. Bouncing from house to house and from one perspective to the next, this story about the façade of the perfect suburban life is one that many suburban expats will recognize.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Only the opening of this novel (and some subsequent flashbacks) is recognizably downtown Toronto—because it doesn’t take long for the story to progress to its post-apocalyptic setting. If you haven’t read this riveting and impossible-to-put-down book, you definitely need too.
The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker
I’ve yet to read this novel about Harriet, a kid who is experiencing some familial discord during 1960’s Toronto’s sexual revolution and drug culture. Expect to see snippets of now-posh Yorkville in this debut.
Love Enough by Dionne Brand
This 2015 novel shows Toronto in a new light according to the review from the Globe & Mail from that year. This is another on my need-to-read list, especially after reading the description—it’s a book about the intersecting stories of characters who each shed light on the city they live in.
Fifth Business by Robertson Davis
This novel technically takes place all over the world, from the German battlefield in World War One to a travelling circus in Austria. But Dunstan Ramsay’s childhood is located in Deptford, Ontario and he attended school at the University of Toronto, which serve as the backdrop for much of his guilty conscience and the thoughtful storytelling of his life.