British Columbia

Vancouver as a character: 3 books that use the city as more than a setting

On The Coast's book columnist, Tara Henley, takes a look at new novels that feature Vancouver as more than just a setting but reveal its character with its light and dark sides.

Vancouver often plays other cities in films but here are some new novels where it plays itself

Vancouver can often be spotted in major films but rarely gets to play itself in those blockbusters. This week, book columnist Tara Henley tells On The Coast about new novels with Vancouver as a featured character. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

During the last precious days of summer, many are busy making the most of the sunshine and stopping to appreciate the spectacular beauty of Vancouver.

On The Coast book columnist Tara Henley explores local authors who've taken inspiration from Vancouver, not just for its natural landscape but also for its character, with its dark and light sides.

"I remember when I lived in Toronto, coming home at this time of year. My friend and I were driving across the Lion's Gate, and the view was just magnificent, everything in technicolor. My friend turned to me and said: 'The city is showing off,'" said Henley. 

"That's what it is this week. The city is showing off, and we're all appreciating it. It got me thinking about how authors have captured that feeling, that unique love for Vancouver and then also the other side of the coin, our dark side — in a wide range of titles."

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

"It's a murder mystery that centres on a social worker, Jessica, whose mother dies. In the process of clearing out her mother's house, the bodies of two teenaged foster girls are discovered in the freezer.

To find out who murdered the sisters, Jessica plays detective, following the trail all the way back to the West End of the 1940s, to Chinatown in the 1980s, and back to present-day Vancouver. It's a page-turner for sure, but what really stands out here is the way that the the city is less a backdrop and more an actual character in the story."

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

"The story follows Nora Watts, an alcoholic narrator who is a product of the foster care system. She gave up a daughter at birth, who is now 15 and has gone missing. Nora works as an assistant to a private investigator, and she taps these skills to try and track down her daughter.

The journey takes her from the dark corners of the Downtown Eastside to sprawling mansions in West Vancouver, and, wow, the descriptions of the city are evocative. What's most fascinating here, though, is the way that Kamal has managed not just to capture the natural beauty of the city but also to incorporate the political climate here in a way that doesn't feel artificial or forced.

Be Ready For the Lightning by Grace O'Connell

Vancouver has not just been a muse for residents but also for visitors. [The book is] about a sister and her troubled brother, set between New York City and Vancouver's West Side. And I was surprised by how bang on the descriptions of our city were, knowing that O'Connell isn't from here.

I reached out to her this week to ask her about that, and she emailed back that she had been inspired by a one-week visit in 2012. Here's what she told me: "The city captured my imagination so fully that it was the only place I considered as a Canadian setting when I sat down to write Be Ready for the Lightning. I knew it was a place I wanted to spend time mentally and emotionally."

With files form CBC Radio One's On The Coast.

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