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April 17, 2018

1979 and That Time I Loved You

Ray Robertson’s new novel, 1979, is set in Robertson’s hometown, Chatham, ON, the story Tom Buzby, of a small town paperboy who once come back from the dead and now everybody thinks he must have some uncanny knowledge of the world and its workings. Which he does, actually, but in a more practical sense than assumed, the way he’s privy to glimpses of private lives, and wise to the cycles and seasons of the town and its residents. He’s not sure either why everybody thinks he’s got access to wisdom, but that’s because he takes his point of view for granted, his unique perspective on ordinary lives, and the fact that there is really no such thing.

Full disclosure: not a long happens in this book. Tom dies and comes back from the dead before the story starts, which is also when his mother, a former stripper turned religious zealot, runs off with the pastor, leaving her tattoo-artist husband to care of Tom and his older sister Julie. There’s a simmering tension involving Tom’s dad finally buying his own property, and the destruction of a local building to make way for a downtown mall, but otherwise it’s Tom on his paper-round, listening to his sister’s records, hanging out with his friends, thinking about his mother, checking out the books at Cole’s, and trying to impress an older girl by lying and telling her he’s read Fear of Flying. All of these characters are richly and sympathetically imagined, and realized.

It might be a two hour drive from Chatham to Wingham, but I still got an Alice Munro vibe from Robertson’s small town scenes, and this was underlined by the “newspaper stories” that are scattered through the novel. Imagined stories (‘Young Woman Finds Ontological Comfort in New Pair of Pants:’ “When I Look at Them, They Remind Me of Who I am”; ‘Man Grows Old and Cranky:’ “I Knew it Happened to Everyone, but Somehow I Thought in My Case There Might Be an Exception”; ‘Man Found Dead in Next-Door Neighbour’s Swimming Pool:’ “I didn’t Necessarily Want to Die, but I Didn’t Want to be Alive Either”) providing readers with access to the inner lives of the people who are secondary characters in Tom Buzby’s own tale, giving answers to questions that Tom does not yet have the age and experience to be asking—although he’s already haunted by a sense that they’re coming.

The book is rich with allusions to literature and music, and one reference specifically informs the project, the poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, which narrates the epitaphs of residents of a small town. Robertson’s take with the newspaper stories is similar in approach, and connects with Tom’s job (and downtown circuits) in a meaningful way. The result is beautifully crafted, a rich and textured perspective of small town life, a nostalgic journey that resonates with the world of today.

When I picked up Carrianne Leung’s new book next, That Time I Loved You, it was purely a coincidence, and I wasn’t expecting a connection. Until the first paragraph, of course: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade  6. Elsewhere in world, big things were happening. McDonalds introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides…”

These two books are excellent companions, perfect contenders for “If you like this, read…” pairings. Instead of small town Ontario and the past meeting the future, Leung is chronicling the suburbs and the possibility of escaping the past. The setting is Scarborough, where brand new houses with their leafy lawns on winding streets represent fresh starts, new beginnings for the immigrant families who imagine they’ve finally arrived after years of struggle. There’s even a kid with a paper route, Josie, who’d inherited the route from her big brother: “Josie loved her routine and the sense of purpose her job gave her. She loved collecting the money at the end of the week from the neighbours, who often slipped her cookies, candy or even a tip.”

Although the centre of this novel is Josie’s best friend June, another first-generation Chinese-Canadian who revels in the expansiveness and freedom of her childhood, playing outside with her packs of friends until the streetlights come on. Like Tom Buzby, June has her eye on things, and she’s got surprising insight into the lives of her neighbours, although she doesn’t understand everything she learns either—least of all, why there’s been a suicide epidemic, and whose parent was going to be next?

A novel in stories is a perfect container for this book about the suburbs, every chapter a different house on the street. Open the door and go inside to find a different story, a closet full of secrets, a peek out the window to a new view of the street. The Portuguese housewife who is tired with putting up with her abusive husband; the young Italian-Canadian wife who has moved to Scarborough away from downtown, and who longs for a baby that doesn’t come; the neighbourhood social butterfly who is secretly a thief, and whose habits eventually get found out by her neighbours. Plus June’s friends, sweet and effeminate Nav, Darren whose academic potential is undermined by a racist teacher, and Josie, whose uncle is sexually abusing her. As with Robertson and the news articles, Leung’s structure permits her to include a wide range of different voices, and to suggest there is no such thing as a central narrative, but instead to shine a light on these remarkable places where stories intersect.

One thought on “1979 and That Time I Loved You

  1. melanie says:

    Both sound great. Mister’s paternal side of the family is all from Chatham (many are still there farming) and it has always seemed like this mythical place that I hear about but have never been to.

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