Judith McCormack

Judith McCormack
Photo: Kathryn Hollinrake

Judith McCormack is a Canadian author who writes literary fiction. Her first short story was shortlisted for the Journey Prize and her next three were selected for the Coming Attractions Anthology. Her collection of stories, The Rule of Last Clear Chance, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and was named one of the best books of the year by The Globe and Mail. Her work has been published in the Harvard Review, Descant and The Fiddlehead, and one of her stories has been turned into a short film by her twin sister, Naomi McCormack, an award-winning filmmaker. Another short story was translated into Hebrew and included in an anthology of Jewish writing. Her short story in the Harvard Review was recorded as a spoken word version by The Drum, and was anthologized in Best Canadian Short Stories 2014. Backspring, her first novel, was shortlisted for the 2016 Amazon First Novel Award. Her most recent book, The Singing Forest, was named one of the ten best historical novels of 2021 by the New York Times.

The Singing Forest cover

In a quiet forest in Belarus, two boys make a gruesome find that reveals a long-kept secret: the mass grave where Stalin’s police buried thousands of murder victims in the 1930s. The results of the subsequent investigation—30,000 dead—has far-reaching effects, and across the Atlantic in Toronto, young lawyer Leah Jarvis finds herself tasked with an impossible case: the trial of elderly Stefan Drozd, a former member of Stalin’s forces, who fled his crimes in Kurapaty for a new identity in Canada. Lyrical and wrenching by turns, The Singing Forest is a profound investigation of memory, truth, and the stories that tell us who we are.

Named one of the ten best historical novels of 2021 by the New York Times.

Praise for The Singing Forest

The Singing Forest blends thought-provoking reflections on the moral reckoning of war crimes with a warm, wry, almost Anne Tyler-esque depiction of a young woman’s attempts to decode her eccentric professional and personal families … Leah’s losses, her questions about her parents, are subtly contrasted with larger questions about truth and responsibility, especially when she flies off to conduct interviews in Minsk, “where facts had been malleable for so long, where they had become saleable commodities.”

New York Times

Moving hypnotically between present events and two motherless childhoods — Jarvis’s eccentric upbringing and the loveless brutality of Drozd’s — McCormack pulls off a little miracle. For much of the novel, we care about the monster. All this she accomplishes in sentences that wrap themselves around you.

The Walrus

The novel’s twin storylines — Jarvis explores pre-war Stalinist atrocities and her own family secrets — are beautifully written, and reach a profound and unsettling moral clarity as McCormack weighs what happens when, in her protagonist’s words, “fragments of leftover history spill into the present.”


Judith McCormack’s The Singing Forest is probably the best Canadian novel, released this year, that you will read.

John Delacourt

A brilliant stroke … McCormack’s scope is impressive. The Singing Forest is a crime drama, a historical novel, and a character-driven work … This novel posits that time does not heal all wounds. Recognition, reparation, and remembrance are urgent.

Quill & Quire

In this hypnotically layered novel, a young Jewish lawyer, Leah Jarvis, is assigned the case of Stefan Drozd, a nonagenarian war criminal facing deportation for acts he committed as a minor in Belarus. McCormack treats her characters with unnerving fairness, balancing terror with beauty, a brutal childhood with an odd and loving one, and somehow squeezing out of the reader sympathy for Drozd—until horror precludes it. Deeply intelligent and deeply moral, The Singing Forest shows that, like glass, truth is amorphous. It also makes the case that, though ‘there is no general duty to rescue’ in law, a family might save a child, as it did Leah. Or it may, like Drozd, make a monster of him.

Caroline Adderson, author of A History of Forgetting and A Russian Sister

Sometimes, as a reader, you put down a book in wonder, because you have been inside the mind of a deep and seeing writer, whose vision of the world is captivating, original and illuminating. Such a writer is Judith McCormack. In vibrant and nuanced language McCormack spirals us into the heart of a war criminal, and the brilliant lawyer who unravels the workings of his mind. Dark, disturbing, dazzling—this is an unflinching look at evil—and yet, and here is McCormack’s genius, we emerge more whole. The Singing Forest is an absolute triumph!

Shaena Lambert, author of Petra and Oh, My Darling

Beautifully written … a really masterful job of weaving a story from present-day Toronto and then going back to pre-World War II Belarus.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight, on Shelagh Rogers’ The Next Chapter.

The Kurapaty mass grave near Minsk, Belarus, was used to hide the bodies of thousands murdered by Stalin’s secret police from 1937 to 1941 … searingly, as McCormack writes, there are the voices of the dead who cry out, ‘We are here. We are waiting.’ Know this history through your heart, through the empathetic imagination of McCormack’s fiction.

Kim Echlin, author of The Disappeared

By its searing and ambiguous finale, this startlingly humane novel has made an indelible impression.

Michelle Schingler, The Foreword Review (Starred Review)

There is nothing bleak or drained of life in The Singing Forest, despite such harrowing scenes. The energy of the prose does not falter, transcending the expectations—if not the limitations—of a crime drama … the scope of McCormack’s ambition is nothing less than a poetic meditation on the mutability of identity, and with The Singing Forest, she succeeds.

Ottawa Review of Books

McCormack brings her unique voice to this intriguing novel of difficult choices and moral reckoning. The way that McCormack weaves together Drozd and Leah’s narratives makes for a compelling, nuanced and highly thoughtful read. At once a page-turner, an exploration of evil, and an inquiry into the possibilities of redemption.

Lori Feathers, Interabang Books (Dallas, TX)

Other Reviews

Stories that scintillate. … [an] exceptional collection … McCormack emerges as a skilled storyteller unlike any I’ve encountered. The weightiness of themes — good luck and bad, happiness and misery, chance and choice and responsibility — is filtered pleasingly through the wry voice of a character in one story; another unfolds effortlessly, redolent with atmosphere and a detailed evoking of a period setting (19th century Havana) and manners. Seemingly random plotting gathers itself to a gentle burst of catharsis that beautifully integrates the whole. … [McCormack] is a rare bird.

Jim Bartley, The Globe and Mail

[McCormack’s] own language is sharply honed without being studied or precious … She also possesses another valuable tool of the writer, an analogical imagination — she sees the relations between unlike things. … Finally, she captures the details of daily routine in a way that gives immense life to her narratives — whether it’s the banging of a venetian blind, caught in a breeze, against a window frame, or a man “trying to put a glove on with one hand by trapping it against his side.”

Phillip Marchand, The Toronto Star

Judith McCormack writes with the fluidity and confidence of a natural, and her stories are a joy to read.

Nino Ricci

The stories are rich with bang-on physical description, unforced, natural dialogue and the telling particulars of daily life. There is also a wonderful sensuality to many of their settings. … The Rule of Last Clear Chance is a collection of substance, physicality, and insight — a debut to be savoured.

Quill & Quire

The Rule of Last Clear Chance is an anthology of deftly written and somewhat askew short stories by Judith McCormack who offers the reader an engaging, entertaining, and rather different take on life. Among the many colorful characters are a lawyer who navigates by smell, a grocer who sells lobsters, and a hapless thief who should have (perhaps) chosen a life of white-collar crime instead. Double entendres, language slanted with a dash of the bizarre, and an abiding insight into the drives of human nature colour these unforgettable tales. The Rule of Last Clear Chance documents Judith McCormack as a wonderfully and uniquely gifted storyteller!

Midwest Book Review (U.S.)

Judith McCormack captures small details of the ordinary in [an] extraordinary new collection. … Judging by her first collection, she’s the kind of writer who starts out very well and only gets better.

The Ottawa Citizen

… sparkling debut collection of short stories … McCormack’s prose resembles high realism in the way it adjusts reality into hyper-sharp focus. … Her dialogue is so natural and effortless that readers feel like they are eavesdropping on actual conversations. … It’s impossible to read a McCormack story without being stopped in your tracks by the vividness of language. Her use of words is often shockingly delightful.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Record

Devastatingly good.

John Metcalf

The characters in Judith McCormack’s short story collection The Rule of Last Clear Chance are human beings rich in spirit … laced with humour and wit, and even in darker moments the interior thoughts and dialogues of her characters are frequently very funny. McCormack commands the English language the way Pascal Roget handles the piano keys — with an apparent effortlessness in which technique is so solid as to be a given. In these stories, optimistic individuals may become fearful and intelligent ones do stupid things, but the author presents them always with unpatronizing tenderness.

Books in Canada

Another award-winning writer is Judith McCormack, whose first collection of short stories, The Rule ofLast Clear Chance, has a wider reach and is ultimately accessible to more readers. Her characters are drawn from all over the social landscape, and so you never know whom you will encounter from one tale to the next. … The Rule of Last Clear Chance is almost wholly satisfying, introducing us to characters about whom we are bound to be curious.

University of Toronto Quarterly

There are no clichés in her stories. When she has an idea to explore, she forges new trails across the landscapes of language and metaphors to territories where it seems that no other writer has ever set foot. … McCormack sets a new standard for short-story writing in this debut collections, and perhaps more importantly, for seeing life in all of its dimensions. We need more writers like her.

Canadian Book Review Annual

This is her debut collection, and I have to say I was pretty amazed by it. Her writing is just so — it’s witty and it’s funny and it’s very readable. She’s got these wonderful little observations that just strike you as very humorous. She reminded me a lot of Carol Shields, actually. … I just want her to write a lot more books really soon. I’d love to see a long book by her. … the wit, the pathos, the aptness of images is just wonderful … I would love to see a novel.

CBC Radio

McCormack commands the English language the way Pascal Rogé handles the piano keys — with an apparent effortlessness in which technique is so solid as to be a given.

Books in Canada

Though it starts with a fire, the appeal of this book is its style of depicting aftermath, which is understated despite high emotional tension. It’s akin to the scent of smoke that bothers Eduardo during anxious moments in the months following the blast. A novel of precariousness — in love and life — set in a Montreal mosaic of French, English and les autres.

Jade Colbert, Globe and Mail.