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Canada Reads 2024 Wrap-Up - The Future by Catherine Leroux Wins the Competition

Heather O'Neill and The Future by Catherine Leroux, winner of Canada Reads 2024

After four days of passionate debate and discussion, Canada Reads 2024 came to a dramatic conclusion, with The Future by Catherine Leroux (translated by Susan Ouriou) taking the glory. Championed by acclaimed author Heather O'Neill (whose novel Lullabies for Little Criminals was the winning title in 2007), The Future told the story of one woman’s search for her missing granddaughters in a post-industrial landscape reeling from ecological collapse. Despite the post-dystopian setting in the novel, O'Neill was adamant throughout the week that this was a novel underpinned by hope, that pushed linguistic boundaries for the competition, and that would be relevant to all of Canada.

We previously shared a midweek recap of the competition, where Mirian Njoh passionately championed Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune, and spoke about the importance of the novel as a romance that could bring new readers to the fore, and bridge the gap between readers of popular or commercial fiction, and the kind of fare that often appears on Canada Reads. While the other panellists admired the craft and skill of the author, they were not moved to put it ahead of the other titles, with four votes tallied against the novel to eliminated in from the competition on the very first day.

Denison Avenue by Christina Wong & Daniel Innes pulled at heartstrings all around the table, defended with vigor by former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. It was a title that touched on pressing, harrowing socioeconomic issues, especially for the elderly, for immigrants and their diaspora, and for those who have watched their cities change and vanish. The book impacted everyone at the table, but it did not garner enough sympathy to avoid being voted off after a tie-breaking vote by Mirian Njoh, who saw her championed book leave contention the day before.

Canada Reads champions at the CBC studio

Day Three kicked on with the remaining contestants eager to keep their books in the running for the Canada Reads title. There was considerable debate about whether the themes and storytelling threads in Bad Cree by Jessica Johns were too distracting, or whether they hit home in the way that the author contended. Dallas Soonias defended the novel by suggesting that some of the Indigenous content in the novel might have been too challenging for some panellists who haven't been keyed in to different ways of storytelling.

Neheed Nenshi didn't agree with some of the other champions, and lauded Bad Cree and its pacing and mixed genre. He also shared the he thought Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji was the weakest book in contention, and that it would not have hit home without the efforts this week by actor Kudakwashe Rutendo. Heather O'Neill went on to speak about the power of magical realist elements in novels like The Future, and in Bad Cree, and how shifting away from reality in interesting ways makes these novels shine.

Further discussions were held about whether these novels transported the readers to another world, with Nenshi admiring the Bad Cree again for its rich backdrops. Kudakwashe Rutendo insisted that the more intimate community setting in Shut Up, You're Pretty was an important place for readers to visit, but this did not seem to be enough for the other panellists. Though, O'Neill recognized the strength of voice in these stories, and the affect of Téa Mutonji's Congolese roots on the rhythm and tone of the writing. Dallas Soonias found that he couldn't locate himself in the world of The Future and felt that it was more about "vibe" than the actual ability to transport him to the setting of the novel, and, as a father, questioned the veracity of a possible place where children can survive in this way.

The remaining time was spent talking about the book that stuck with each reader the most, with Njoh claiming that the protagonist in Shut Up, You're Pretty took up the most space in her thoughts, although it was a harrowing journey with young Loli, who carries the stories in the collection. Kudakwashe Rutendo saw her own experiences in her chosen title, and talked about the importance of a book like this for those who might not have seen themselves in fiction. Naheed Nenshi found that the characters in The Future left little impact on him, but that the aunties in Bad Cree were the most indelible. Heather O'Neill spoke about some of the characters in The Future, and how well they were depicted on the page and won her over.

There was more discussion before the final vote, where things were settled as follows:

Heather O'Neill voted against 

Mirian Njoh voted against Bad Cree.

Naheed Nenshi voted against The Future.

Kudakwashe Rutendo voted against Bad Cree.

Dallas Soonias voted against The Future.

And, finally, Heather O'Neill voted against Bad Cree

After the votes were tallied, Bad Cree was eliminated from the competition. 

Heather O'Neill holds The Future by Catherine Leroux

With the stage set for the final day of the competition, the authors took their places at the Canada Reads table for one last time. Prepared to make that crucial decision between the remaining titles, Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji and The Future by Catherine Leroux. Which book would be the "one to carry us forward?"

The panellists began by talking about their experience throughout the week, and how they were happy to have the opportunity to champion these books throughout the competition. The challenges and joys of doing so were clear, but there was a clear sense of camaraderie and support between everyone at the table, even if the debates had been fraught at times. 

Kudakwashe Rutendo began the last round of discussion by espousing the effect that the stories in Shut Up You're Pretty had on her, deepening and becoming more profound and moving with each new read. She called author Téa Mutonji a poet, with great skill and craft, but who had also written a book that is accessible and relatable to all Canadians. She claimed that the protagonist Loli grappled with everyday problems, which trying to find herself and discover who she could possible be. 

The focus then shifted to The Future by Catherine Leroux, and to Heather O'Neill. The Giller Prize finalist went on to praise the novel as a story that shows us path to the future, where people take responsibilities for their actions, where community is all, and where no voice is consider insignificant. She called Leroux "our of Canada's great literary stylists," who changed the way O'Neill saw the world, and the possibilities of our society going forward. She talked about growing up in a dangerous environment, and knowing "exactly what it means to bring a child into a dysfunctional world."

When it came to comparing and contrasting the novels to determine who would carry the votes, Rutendo started in by talking about the more grounded nature of Shut Up, You're Pretty, which she preferred over the lofty, perhaps artsy style of The Future. O'Neill went on to dismiss the idea that "literary" books shouldn't necessarily win a competition like Canada Reads, because they are more challenging on a craft level. She rued the loss of complicated novels that challenge readers and create vivid atmospheres, and trusted that Canadians were savvy enough readers and shouldn't be underestimated. Rutendo came back to say that there's "an art in simplicity," and just because something is simple, it doesn't mean that it's less artful. She claimed that the stories in the collection used the most "artful words and conventions while remaining accessible."

The seminal host of Canada Reads, Ali Hassan, brought the other panellists into the conversation. Dallas Soonias was first to weigh in, saying that he found there wasn't a lot of resolution to the traumatic events in Shut Up, You're Pretty, and wondered how it would be the book to carry us forward. Rutendo defended the book by talking about the ways the Mutonji subverted genre to show the authentic stories of a collection of unique Black women, and interconnecting their stories in a meaningful way.

Hassan shifted the discussion to The Future, where champion Heather O'Neill added to her earlier point about the richness of the characters in the novel, and how the character Gloria was difficult to empathize with at first, due to her experience with people who have abandoned others. But then she came to appreciate the character, and was moved by her arc and path to redemption in the novel. She contrasted this with Loli in Shut Up, You're Pretty, who she found too passive in the situations that she finds herself in throughout the stories in the collection. Because of this kind of depiction, she mentioned that readers are looking for characters who try to find a way forward in fiction.

Rutendo challenged these ideas by talking about the nuance to Loli's arc, especially when it came to the depiction of a Black character taking care of herself, and also allowing herself to be taken care of by her mother and by the community. She felt that the stories in the collection gave an honest account of family, and was true to life in way that seemed to be lost on some of the other panellists.

The conversation was joined then by Mirian Njoh, who acknowledging that these authors were asking us to engage with their work, but that the character of Loli was kind of an anti-hero in that she was easy to love, but the reader might wonder if she wanted something for herself. The subtlety and beauty wasn't enough for Njoh, and she echoed sentiments about stories and characters being incomplete on the page. 

Naheed Nenshi then jumped in to thank the other panellists for the discussions so far, and mentioned that O'Neill had only really been talking about The Future in terms of the idea of the book, and not the actual book itself, until now. He then went on to share his "controversial" take that Shut Up, Your Pretty was actually a novel and not a collection of sotries, and that it did not stick that landing. He suggested that the "short story" designation seemed to try to let this book off the hook for not being fully realized as a novel.

After some very moving audio clips from family members in support of the panellists, which brought a number of the champions to tears, the conversation continued. 

Canada Reads books

The discussion shifted to the idea of community and connection, and which book succeeding most in bringing these to the fore. Miriam Njoh thought that The Future had a richer sense of community, with self-contained ecosystems of people that thrive as each character plays their part, where the characters and community in Shut UpYou're Pretty seemed to be there to serve Loli. Naheed Nenshi talked about the fact that his "life is community" and building community, and that this was the easiest part of The Future for him to connect with, and that it was so obvious from page one, whether tragedy or connection was in focus. He agreed that he felt the community was incidental to the story, and was again, there to serve Loli. He compared the community setting in the collection previous Canada Reads contender Catherine Hernandez's Scarborough, which he felt had a much richer portrayal of a community.

Hope and resilience were in focus next, and discussion about which book had the most compelling portrayal of these elements to carry us forward. Soonias mentioned that he thought The Future made a more coherent case for both. Rutendo felt that the beauty in The Future was more elusive and tied into metaphors and imagery, but that Shut UpYou're Pretty was much more direct and to the point. O'Neill, exasperated by repeated takes on the novel being "too dense," said that high concepts and deep metaphors are constant in the best literature, and that Catherine Leroux's ability to use an subvert a deep dystopian concept set the novel apart. Mirian Njoh chimed in to say that she felt that she understood why everything comes to pass with the characters in The Future, and that the novel hollers hope instead of whispering it. Rutendo doubled-down by saying that this world wasn't just deep or dense, but actually unclear to the reader.

The time had almost come for the all-important final vote of the week, with audio messages from authors Téa Mutonji and Catherine Leroux piped in to inspire the final remarks from the two remaining champions.

To cap things off, Kudakwashe Rutendo made her case for Shut Up, You're Pretty and about the importance of disruption in the stories. She claimed that the characters and the worldbuilding of The Future were not convincing, and that the grounding of the characters and setting in Shut Up, You're Pretty were far more affective and cohesive than those in The Future

Heather O'Neill took her moment to talk about Dallas Soonias' comments on his son and how he'd feel if he was alone in the woods, how Naheed Nenshi has presided over catastrophic events and knows how community comes together, and how Miriam Njoh introduced her to so much in terms of genre and the thirst for adventure within the female characters in the novel she championed.

The ballots were handed out, and carefully considered before they were filled. And then came the final vote, which were revealed as follows:

Heather O'Neill voted against Shut Up You're Pretty.

Kudakwashe Rutendo voted against The Future.

Mirian Njoh voted against The Future.

Naheed Nenshi voted against Shut Up You're Pretty.

And finally, Dallas Soonias voted against Shut Up You're Pretty.

After the votes were tallied the winner of the 2024 edition of Canada Reads was The Future by Catherine Leroux, translated by Susan Ouriou.

With a moment to reflect on the results, Kudakwashe Rutendo emotionally spoke about Shut Up, You're Pretty and how it brought her back to home, and was an important work for Black represention and the depiction of Black characters in literature. Champion Heather O'Neill, gushed over her opponents composure and passion, and how Rutendo kept her on her toes throughout the competition, despite the fact that O'Neill writes and discusses books for a living. 

There was a short video chat with the author of The Future, Catherine Leroux, in which she thanked and complimented all of the panellists. Host Ali Hassan called Canada Reads the country's "biggest book club," and Heather O'Neill thanked Dallas Soonias for talking about his dyslexia, and how that created challenges in his reading. She also talked about her admiration for Nenshi and challenged him to more debate at Wordfest in Calgary. Nenshi, movingly, closed the show by praising Kudakwashe Rutendo, saying that listening to her words and ideas was "the best thing for (him) in the last two months."

That's all for our coverage of Canada Reads 2024. We hope that you enjoyed these reviews and recaps on Open Book, and we'll see you again next year for the next round of the competition. In the meantime, congratulations to Catherine Leroux, translator Susan Ouriou, Heather O'Neill, and OBPO member Biblioasis, who published the winning title!

To watch full replays of the contest to-date, you can find them all here, including the thrilling finale. They are also available in podcast format through the app of your choice.

You can also catch up on the week’s debates on the free CBC Gem streaming service and CBC Listen


Below, we have reminder of the full shortlist of books that were up for the coveted Canada Reads title when the week began, and how we arrived at the winner.

The 2024 CBC Canada Reads contenders are: