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The Books Behind WORRY

Worry is Jessica Westhead's new novel, a compelling and unsettling story about threats real and imagined—and where one draws the line. Kim Fu calls it "an irresistible novel from its first pages to its devastating end." 

In this recommended reading list, Westhead names titles that informed her work as she conceived and developed her novel. 

*****

In Lands and Forests, a superbly stark and brooding short-story collection by Andrew Forbes, the wilderness is a constant presence. It offers hope to the disillusioned, broken men and women who populate Forbes’ bleak and beautiful stories, and fills them with reverence, peace and awe. But it can just as easily fill them with unease and dread. In Worry, the lake and forest (ha, see what I did there?) is a constant presence as well, offering my characters the promise of a fun, carefree vacation and a welcome break from rules and responsibilities, but also awakening long-dormant grief and fear in Ruth, my main character. Lands and Forests is also adorned with some of the most ravishing cover art (designed by Megan Fildes) I have ever seen. And when I first laid eyes on the cover of Worry (designed by Alan Jones), I whooped with delight.

That Time I Loved You, by Carrianne Leung, is a marvellous collection of interwoven short stories observing the interconnected lives of neighbours in a 1970s Scarborough suburb. There is a focus on the recurring character of June, a young girl who’s beginning to realize that all is not as it seems in this shiny suburb advertised to its residents as a paradise away from the city. Leung has crafted a layered and enthralling array of tales here, and I read her beautifully rendered vignettes of lost and misguided people yearning for a better life with a lovely sense of creeping unease. I love fiction like this that peels back the veneer of “ordinary” life to expose the rottenness lurking just beneath the pristine surface. I wanted to explore that idea in Worry as well, by gradually exposing the cracks in Ruth’s perfect-seeming marriage, her identity as a mother, and her connection with her childhood friend Stef.

*

In Shut Up You’re Pretty, an intense childhood friendship figures prominently in wry and often unsettling linked short stories. This vividly observed and thoroughly engrossing debut collection by Téa Mutonji follows the coming-of-age of Loli, from an awestruck sidekick to the sharp-witted and unapologetic star of her own life. The connection between Loli and her “first friend” Jolietta, who convinces Loli to bare her breasts for a stranger in exchange for cigarettes and pulls her strings in all sorts of other ways, was so compelling and disquieting. Difficult relationships, and the way we navigate them, are endlessly fascinating to me. In Worry, Ruth’s friend Stef is similarly overbearing (but also magnetically fun to hang out with, like Jolietta is). She has always had a “big personality,” and Ruth and Stef’s bond is often strained and uncomfortable for both of them.

*

Each of the artfully crafted short stories in This One Because of the Dead, Laure Baudot’s stellar debut collection, sparkles like a painstakingly polished gem. But even with this hard work in evidence, the prose skips along effortlessly, crackling with energy and brimming with bighearted curiosity about the world. There is wisdom here too, as well as a sense of gravitas that permeates all of these tales. This is literary alchemy. I also noticed that Baudot has a real knack for moving seamlessly between the present and the past. This fictional time-travelling happens throughout Worry, too, as Ruth’s mind drifts back to the experiences that have caused her to worry so much. I love flashbacks (especially if they enhance rather than disrupt the narrative, as is the case in The One Because of the Dead) because they mirror the way we think in real life—one moment we’re grounded in the present, and the next moment we’re in our heads, whooshing back to re-live some distant event that we can’t let go of.

Pockets, by Stuart Ross, is a tiny (pocket-sized!), shimmering literary treasure that makes you feel, deeply. This enchanting “novel of fragments” about a man dealing with family grief is eerie and ethereal and surreal, full of loss and longing and head-shaking brilliance. I read it cover to cover in one sitting and it made me laugh–sigh–cry. With Worry, which is also an exploration of grief and love and yearning for family, I wanted to write a suspenseful story ... but I wanted to write an emotional story, too. I’ve always been a fan of combining light and dark/funny and sad/hope and despair, and Ross always does this so well in both his fiction and his poetry.

*

The Break, by Katherena Vermette, is one of my favourite novels ever. It’s incredibly compelling, so I was desperate to keep reading and find out how the story would unfold, feeling disturbed and frightened as I began to put the pieces together about who had committed the horribly violent act that sets the narrative in motion. But I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted to because the prose was stunning. I lingered over it, shaking my head in awe at how Vermette had written so successfully from so many different points of view, each character fully realized and empathetic. There were certain scenes, including a flashback that illuminated the devastation of intergenerational trauma, that took my breath away. And I admired the way Vermette had structured her story to keep the reader guessing, but once the mystery is solved, the story is still just as riveting because by that point we care deeply about these characters and need to know what will happen to them. When I was figuring out the structure for Worry, my intent—and hope—was to create a similar experience for my readers. I had to learn, as I went along, how and when to withhold and reveal certain key information, with an equal focus on plot and character. It was tricky work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, is everything I want in a psychological thriller: it’s gripping, chilling, and gorgeously written. And while it does contain violence (none of which feels gratuitous), it deftly avoids any exploitation of its characters. I love reading suspenseful stories and watching suspenseful movies and TV shows, but too many thrillers now (both on the page and onscreen) use rape and murder and torture and abuse as narrative devices to shock and upset audiences and ramp up the tension, and I just can’t abide that. If it’s not absolutely in the service of enriching the story or the characters, and there’s no respect or humanity in it, I don’t want that stuff in my head. There is enough real suffering in the world already. I’m not saying, by any means, that all stories should be happy and uplifting. Worry is not happy or uplifting. Neither is Hysteria, which is something else I loved about it. This mesmerizing novel (which is also about a mother’s worry for her child) did exactly what I hope Worry will accomplish: hook the reader immediately and keep them feeling unsettled and uncertain and invested in the characters right up until the heartbreaking end.

Be Ready for the Lightningby Grace O’Connell, is another masterfully written, edge-of-your-seat page-turner that made my heart pound all the way through…but like Hysteria and The Break, it made me think as well as feel, and explored both the far-reaching and intimate consequences of the violence used in the story. It’s about a young woman named Veda, with the chapters alternating between her present (the minute-by-minute action when she is taken hostage by a gun-wielding man on a New York City bus) and her past (the dramatic unspooling of her troubled relationship with her brother). O’Connell’s pacing in both sections is perfect—taut and accelerated with nightmarish slow motion in the present, with a more sprawling, epic feel to the flashback chapters. With Worry, I wanted to write a story about everyday worries (fuelled by the fear of what might happen) that feels like a thriller, and while I was devouring Be Ready for the Lightning, I was also studying its beautifully composed parts, always trying to figure out what made it tick like a time bomb.

 *

Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, edited by Allison McDonald Ace, Ariel Ng Bourbonnais and Caroline Starr, is a poignant and open-hearted collection of personal stories that shine a bright, compassionate light on experiences that are too often kept hidden away in the darkness. I was moved to tears by Teri Vlassopoulos’s exquisitely tender essay “Against Miracles.” (Here is the part that broke me open: “The informal term for a child born from a frozen embryo is ‘snow baby,’ one of those overly cutesy phrases you’ll see on infertility message boards, embarrassing until you fall for it too as you picture a ruddy-cheeked baby swaddled in soft furs, nestled in a snowdrift. You have been walking through a storm for days, for months, for years, and then you look down. Oh, there you are! Come, let me warm you up.”) “The Five-Year Plan,” by Sonal Champsee, is by turns defiantly furious, achingly sad and bitterly hilarious. (This part, for example, is all three: “Every fertility treatment starts with a baseline monitoring appointment, blood tests, and a transvaginal ultrasound. The internet infertility groups you find call the ultrasound ‘being twatwanded’ or ‘visiting the dildo-cam.’ You arrive at 7:00 a.m. to see the assembly line in full swing, but you don’t yet know your place in it.”) All of the writers in this anthology share their stories so generously and unflinchingly. On the back cover, the editors write that “the way forward is by going through the grief, not around it.” In Worry, Ruth tries to bury the memories of her struggles with infertility but her past is always with her, keeping her company even though she refuses to acknowledge it’s there.

*

Book Cover Everybody Has Everything

I read Everybody Has Everything many years ago (at least it feels like that now) while I was in the anxious process of trying and failing to get (and stay) pregnant. In this tense, emotional, and captivating novel, Katrina Onstad totally nails (and then exonerates) the horribly guilty feeling of motherly ambivalence that I was struggling with at the time. I had experienced a number of early miscarriages and I was beginning to wonder if my dream of parenthood just wasn’t meant to be ... and when I was honest with myself, I was actually kind of okay with that. Which felt wrong, and selfish. Wasn’t I supposed to be doing absolutely everything in my power to become a mother? But I loved my life with my husband, just the two of us, and I was also terrified of something worse happening if we kept trying. And then I found Everybody Has Everything, and it resonated very deeply with me. I was so grateful that a non-judgmental (and brilliantly written, sharp and gentle at the same time, with whip-smart dialogue) story about an ambivalent and wholly empathetic mother existed. Ultimately, and luckily, I was able to conceive and carry and give birth to my daughter, who I am now completely and utterly in love with and I can’t imagine my life without her. But back then, when the prospect of having a child was dimming and I was so uncertain and worried about the future, Onstad’s wonderful novel buoyed me up. In Worry, Ruth has a difficult journey to motherhood, and that experience colours how she feels about her daughter and everyone else in her life, including herself.

About Worry

A riveting novel about a mother’s all-consuming worry for her child over forty-eight hours at a remote cottage with old friends and a mysterious neighbour, for fans of Little Fires Everywhere and Truly Madly Guilty.

Ruth is the fiercely protective mother of almost-four-year-old Fern. Together they visit a remote family cottage belonging to Stef, the woman who has been Ruth’s best friend—and Ruth's husband’s best friend—for years. Stef is everything Ruth is not—confident, loud, carefree—and someone Ruth cannot seem to escape. While Fern runs wild with Stef’s older twins and dockside drinks flow freely among the adults, they’re joined by Stef’s neighbour Marvin, a man whose frantic pursuit of fun is only matched by his side comments about his absent wife. As day moves into night and darkness settles over the woods, the edges between these friends and a stranger sharpen until a lingering suspicion becomes an undeniable threat.

September 16, 2019

Books mentioned in this post

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Lands and Forests

by Andrew Forbes
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged: small town & rural, short stories (single author), literary

A story collection by award-nominated writer Andrew Forbes that rifles through the domestic and wild moments that make us human.

Escaping government-sanctioned flooding, obsessing over camera-equipped drones, violently mourning a lost brother, discovering a new passion in fencing, watching a wildfire consume a whole town: the stories in Lands and Fo …

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That Time I Loved You

A Novel

by Carrianne Leung
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback Audiobook (CD)
tagged: literary, family life

Winner of the Danuta Gleed Literary Award

Finalist for the Toronto Book Award

Longlisted for CBC Canada Reads

Life is never as perfect as it seems.

Tensions that have lurked beneath the surface of a shiny new subdivision rise up, in new fiction from the author of the Toronto Book Award—shortlisted The Wondrous Woo

The suburbs of the 1970s promised to …

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Shut Up You're Pretty

by Tea Mutonji
edition: Paperback
tagged: contemporary women, short stories (single author), lesbian

Winner, Trillium Book Award and Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction; Finalist, Rogers Writers' Trust of Canada Fiction Prize; a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year

In Tea Mutonji's disarming debut story collection, a woman contemplates her Congolese traditions during a family wedding, a teenage girl looks for happiness inside a pack of cigarettes, …

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This One Because of the Dead

by Laure Baudot
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: literary, short stories (single author)

Laure Baudot’s This One Because of the Dead is a collection of stories about the power of what goes unsaid – of the truths people keep hidden from each other, which guide their relationships and their decisions in unexpected ways.

A former ballet dancer and her boyfriend who is about to scale Mt. Everest struggle with the contradictions between …

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Pockets

A Novel

by Stuart Ross
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary, jewish

Brilliant experimental, surrealist fiction from the award-winning author of Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

A wonderful dream and a horrific nightmare, a fuzzy consciousness of pain and family, Pockets is a novel of fragments — both literally and figuratively. In a series of prose-poem chapters, the nameless narrator, in a largely Jewish 1960s suburb in …

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The Break

by Katherena Vermette
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Audiobook
tagged: literary, native american & aboriginal

Winner of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, The Break is a stunning and heartbreaking debut novel about a multigenerational Métis–Anishnaabe family dealing with the fallout of a shocking crime in Winnipeg’s North End.

When Stella, a young Mé …

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Hysteria

A Novel

by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback
tagged: psychological, thrillers

One of The Globe and Mail’s “Favourite Books of the Year”

The closer she gets to the truth, the faster it slips away.

In the spring of 1945, fifteen year-old Heike circles in the mountains high above Switzerland. Pushed out the door by a worried mother, Heike and her little sister, Lena, have escaped Dresden only days ahead of the firebombs tha …

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Be Ready for the Lightning

by Grace O'Connell
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary, suspense, contemporary women

From acclaimed New Face of Fiction alumna Grace O'Connell, a suspenseful, poignant and provocative tale about violence, sibling love, friendship, heroism--all told through the lens of a young woman trapped in a hijacked bus.

On the surface, Veda's life in Vancouver seems to be going just fine--at nearly thirty, she has a good job, lifelong friends, …

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Through, Not Around

Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss

edited by Allison McDonald Ace; Caroline Starr & Ariel Ng Bourbonnais
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged: infertility, death, grief, bereavement, pregnancy & childbirth

Everything doesn't (always) happen for a reason.

Infertility and pregnancy loss can be devastating, yet both are often private sorrows for the one in six people who cope with the experience. This collection offers personal stories about what it's like to go through the emotional and physical facets of infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss: th …

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Everybody Has Everything

by Katrina Onstad
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback
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What happens when the tidy, prosperous life of an urban couple is turned inside out by a tragedy with unexpected consequences? After a car crash leaves their friend Marcus dead and his wife Sarah in a coma, Ana and James are shocked to discover that they have become the legal guardians of a 2½-year-old, Finn. Finn's crash-landing in their lives th …

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