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The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature

by Eva-Marie Kroller, ed.

The idea that anything approaching an authoritative analysis of Canadian fiction, or nature-writing, or aboriginal writing, can be undertaken in essays of 20 pages or so is almost laughable. But that’s the challenge faced by The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature, the latest edition to the popular Cambridge line, edited by University of British Columbia comparative literature professor Eva-Marie Kroller.

Kroller’s introduction sets an unfortunate tone for the volume; the essay is fragmentary and unfocused, and Kroller struggles to convincingly argue her points regarding a national literary identity, touching on multiculturalism and colonialism in her attempt to pin it down. Her assertion that Canongate’s revision to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was indicative of the ongoing need of Canadian writers to “adjust Canadian books to British and U.S. markets” is so wrong-headed that it undermines her credibility.

The essays themselves, from a noted group of Canadian academics including David Staines (on poetry), Magdalene Redekop (on literary criticism), and Edward D. Blodgett (on francophone writing), are of a generally high standard, but all have the unfortunate task of compressing an entire academic specialty or type of writing into a handful of pages. The results are mixed. While Penny Van Toorn’s essay on aboriginal writing is compelling and well argued, Marta Dvorak’s introduction to Canadian fiction is swept away by the sheer amount of material covered, particularly in contemporary fiction. The Dvorak piece suffers from an overload of information and references, yet most readers will have little trouble suggesting books and authors whose absence is conspicuous.

One has to wonder about the intended audience for The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature: academics and students will likely find it perfunctory at anything other than an introductory level, but the writing is pitched beyond most lay readers. The Companion is literary study as taxonomy, and the fact that it doesn’t entirely work suggests that perhaps the field – the literature itself – is too full of life to be pinned down just yet.


Reviewer: Robert Wiersema

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


Price: $30

Page Count: 290 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-521-89131-0

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 2004-4

Categories: Reference