Essex County by Jeff Lemire was a contender in the 2011 Canada Reads contest. It was up against some other great books but unfortunately it fell out of the running the first day. There was a big dust up and much poo-pooing because it was a graphic novel.
Of all the other contenders, Essex County's most similar opponent was probably Unless by Carol Shields. Both deal with family issues; some members of a family fail to communicate with another leading to misunderstandings and regret. There are secrets. In Unless, Norah's secret is an unusual one, where in Essex the secrets are heartbreaking but rather ordinary.
Essex County conveys the Big Sad Canadian Novel feeling as much as any of the usual suspects only with pictures. Is there anything sadder than a little boy thinking about his dead mother? Or lonelier? There is a sense of 'this is a big country and we are very small' through drawings of empty fields and empty houses. Every panel expresses emotion, even when that panel lacks a human figure.
The plot, if there is one, revolves around three characters living in Essex county: an orphaned boy, an elderly hockey player and a travelling nurse. All three stories are connected though it isn't obvious at first. All characters have heavy burdens. And there is much hockey.
One of the ways I know a book is good is when I'm still thinking about it days if not weeks later. I've been doing that with Essex County. It felt very real to me. These people's stories could be your neighbours' stories. There was only one thing that bugged me (AND THIS MIGHT BE A BIT SPOILERY): the girlfriend. I didn't see any reason for her to do it with the brother. I didn't feel that there was anything between them besides hanging out a lot together. This bugged me. Just because you have a brother doesn't mean your girl will have sex with him if you leave them alone together for 5 minutes. What was her problem? Maybe it's because I'm a woman that it bugged me (and offended me a little too). I needed some more explanation there. And really, that was not cool of the brother especially since they were supposed to be so close.
I most definitely recommend Essex County for its quintessential Canadian qualities.