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January 26, 2014

Dear Leaves, I Miss You All by Sara Heinonen

dear-leaves-i-miss-you-allWeather-wise, it’s been a long, hard winter. The kind of season in which you think it must surely be March by now, but then it’s not even February, and there is no single month which is longer than February. The other night, we were reading Barbara Reid’s book Picture a Tree, and upon gazing on the “A tree can be a tunnel” page, I suddenly exclaimed, “I miss green leaves so much,” and then my aha moment–so that was what the title of Sara Heinonen’s book meant. It was so clear that it was strange that it hadn’t been always.

I found my way into the stories in Dear Leaves, I Miss You All in a similar way.  With the first few, I had trouble finding my footing, didn’t understand Heinonen’s project. Was there even a project at all? Her places (which are mostly Toronto, and sometimes Hong Kong) are a strange borderland between here and there, apocalyptic realism. The world we know, but the sky’s a funny colour. At first, I wondered if there wasn’t much to these stories, save for some starkly defined edges nfused with clarity of vision or humour. I read “Notes from the Fallen” and it made me think of Cynthia Flood’s “Care”, but “Care” was so much more (action-packed, experimental, difficult, daring). Heinonen’s first story, “The Edge of the World,” about teenagers trying to imagine a future once the economic engine of the world had sputtered out and their parents had settled into various forms of regressive malaise (the mother who is addicted to watching owls on a web-cam. I loved this). People kept disappear into holes, sniffing poultry, falling and not getting up again. I didn’t know what to think. I was disoriented in these stories’ universe.

And then. Reading “Walking Along Steeles After Midnight”, more of the same, I thought. Set at the north edge the city (borderlands), a banquet-hall, a woman going nowhere in her marriage and her life. She leaves the party, she’s offered a ride. It’s insisted that she takes it, but no. “I want to feel my boots sink into the thick new snow on a deserted suburban sidewalk…  It’s just a matter of how to refuse the ride.” And aha, finally I get it. Figuring out how to refuse the ride, how not to be taken for one, to blaze one’s own trail, small and significant acts of courage in the dark. From this point on, I decided that I loved this book.

Also: trees. As Heinonen’s biography notes, she’s a landscape architect by trade, which might be related to these stories’ fascination with all things concerning arbour. Dear Leaves, I Miss You All—indeed, the splendour of trees, their solidity and munificence, wonderfully evoked.

The Barb and Benny stories throughout the book—were they bordering on caricature, I wondered in the beginning? But I came to understand them as funny and lovely instead, a subtly subversive and surprising riff on domestic themes set in the east end of Toronto. Barb is a neurotic environmentalist, intent on sewing polar-fleece onesies for her husband and son so they can keep the thermostat down. And now her neighbour is set on pruning (*butchering*) the horse chestnut tree whose nuts keep dropping in his swimming pool (which is now open until the end of October, thanks to global warming). The paragraph in this story that I read aloud to my husband while laughing included the line about Barb’s son, Carson: “He’d recently purchased a chinchilla without our permission and named it Gandhi.” The story ends with a party, a storm, Gandhi in a tree, diehards in a castle, bouncing and missing what’s coming.

In “The Chairs in Bjorn’s Room,” a newcomer to Toronto attempts to woo a pretentious furniture designer. In “The Bloom”, a woman contemplates a former colleague who is afflicted with a cherry tree bough protruding from her abdomen. In “The Blue Dress”, a woman who’d moved to Hong Kong on the coattails of her lover’s career makes a decision about her future, perhaps the first one of her life. I loved “Night of the Polar Fleece”, in which Barb is trying to channel her anxiety into fiction, and stumbles upon a writers’ group in a bar on the Danforth in a blackout during a snowstorm. While wearing her fleece suit, which makes it awkward to take her coat off. She is beginning to learn, through her earnest son, that sometimes you have to take a break from being the change you wish to see in the world.

“Ghost Woman” is about a widower, an immigrant from Hong Kong whose daughter has shrunk away from his control and all his dreams for her. In “Closer,” a heartbroken driving instructor projects his own pain onto a student who has a sad story of her own. And then “May Day Mayday”, Benny and Barb and it’s a silent spring. Or maybe it isn’t. “The sky has gone strange again,” says Barb. “I don’t know what to prepare for.” But inside, “the house is fragrant, vibrating with the crescendo of Benny’s heartfelt song, energized by Carson’s tapping on the computer keyboard, hopeful with ceilings I painted sky-blue.”

This is a book that ends in the kitchen, “where something good is possible.” The casserole cooking doesn’t cancel the strange sky, and anything terrible could fall apart at any time whether outside or in. But for the moment, there is dinner on the table.

This is mercy, this is grace.

I look forward to reading what Sara Heinonen writes next.

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