Carianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (2018)

June is at the heart of this collection of stories; she is the link, the thread of light through a series of dark scenes.

She is our guide to the ‘burbs: “The picture perfect suburban dream with the groomed lawns, nine-to-five jobs, 2.5 children kind of places. Domino effect. One person decides this ridiculous life is unbearable and utterly boring and then they all fall down.”

This is the stuff of everyday, quiet and loud, concealed and forthright.

The babysitter is at one end of the spectrum: “I’d never met anyone so boring. I thought I might be the one who died from watching her.” Sixteen years old, complete with soap operas and Harlequins. (None of which likely take place in the suburbs.)

And the perennial flowers are at the other: “They came back like noisy relatives each year.” That’s right: the flowers are on the noisy end of the spectrum.

At first the garden scene is tender and hopeful but it  takes on a tone of darkness as the story is revealed to have greater depth: “She had known for a long time not to trust appearances at first glance, and that, eventually, people leaked secrets like a pesky tap. If you only watched long enough, it inevitably dripped.”

Readers learn on the first page that there have been several suicides in the neighbourhood, so the darkness is not unexpected, but where it appears in the narrative is unexpected. In the ordinary spaces, in the safe spaces.

The stories are also filled with cultural details like Watermelon Bubbalicious, Michael Jackson (June’s favourite song is “Rock with You”, “The Love Boat” with Captain Stubing’s memorable dinners, and pencil crayon colours.

These small details anchor larger themes like the nature of belonging and the perception of difference.

“He drew this picture with Nav’s No. 13 Ultramarine Blue for the sea and figures of him and his mother standing in it. He considered his No. 12 Black to draw them, but he wasn’t black. Neither was his mother. They were both No. 10 Photo Brown. He was a bit Chestnut Brown too., but his mother was also No. 26 Burst Sienna, a colour that even Nav didn’t have. Only the luckiest kids could afford the thirty-six-pack Laurentians.” (Many thanks to Naomi, who very helpfully snapped this quote in a photo because I had forgotten to note it and already returned my copy to the library.)

The Toronto setting is solid and Leung considers the outlying areas like Michelle Berry and David Chariandy, Barry Dempster and Paul Quarrington. Downtown Toronto is a “one-hour ride on the bus and subway away, but it may as well have been on the other side of the world”, Downtown Chinatown is identified as dirty and strange by those eager to leave behind the sense of otherness. (The collection has been nominated for the 2018 Toronto Book Award.)

June, however, embodies this otherness, even in the spaces in which she is supposed to belong. She is an awkward and endearing, intelligent and vulnerable character, not unlike Mouse in Leung’s first novel, The Wondrous Woo (2013), and readers hope that the next stories in her experience will contain louder babysitters and quieter flowers.

Contents: Grass, Flowers, Fences, Treasure, Wheels, Kiss, Things, Sweets, Rain, That Time I Loved You

What short stories have you been reading lately?

2018-11-30T20:48:09+00:00

11 Comments

  1. annelogan17 September 18, 2018 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I loved reading this review, especially after Naomi’s! It sounds like such a great collection-probably boring to some, but really fascinating to me!

    • Buried In Print September 19, 2018 at 6:51 am - Reply

      Well, there are a lot of deaths, so it’s not as quiet as a lot of CanLit collections are (which I love too, but, as you say, quiet is boring for many readers). At the very least, you will want to dig out your pencil crayons!

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife September 18, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I’m curious about this collection after your review and Naomi’s. I’ll be reading a short story collection in the coming month for my book group – it’s called The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons. I know nothing about it because I missed the last meeting. 🙂 The George Saunders (CivilWarLand) is the last collection I read. I’ve got quite a few on my shelves I need to start – including The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson for the R.I.P. Challenge.

    • Buried In Print September 18, 2018 at 5:32 pm - Reply

      The Bonnaffons collection does look kinda interesting, although I’m a bit shy of anything described as “wildly inventive”. I seem to have a limit when it comes to ‘wildness’ and ‘invention’ in short stories. Although they compare her to Karen Russell (and I loved Swamplandia!) and George Saunders (although maybe everybody gets compared to him, post-Lincoln-in-the-Bardo?) which does recommend her of course. Oh, I think you mentioned that Jackson collection before; I do want to read her this season. grabs volume from shelf, at arm’s length And I see it’s got that wacky novel of hers you just finished reading too, at least there’s an Elizabeth in it, so I think that was the one?

  3. Naomi September 18, 2018 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    I really loved this book… for so many reasons. The connected stories, the voices of the narrators, the stories themselves, the culture references, the mix of young and old voices. I sped right through it.
    It was right after this one that I read Madame Victoria, which also happened to be a novel made up of stories!

    • Buried In Print September 18, 2018 at 5:17 pm - Reply

      If anyone were to say that they think there is a decisive style to writing linked story collections, I’d be willing to bet that reading Leroux and Leung back-to-back would cast that idea out in the cold. The variety and contrasts appealed to me too. (But part of me also wanted either a lot more of Josie or just a little less. She felt very core to me and yet she couldn’t really be an anchor because she wasn’t old enough to have some of the experiences/understanding that would have secured that role. But that’s a nice “complaint” to have.)

      • Naomi September 19, 2018 at 1:37 pm - Reply

        So true about the linked story collections! They are SO different.

  4. Rebecca Foster September 18, 2018 at 4:18 am - Reply

    Naomi’s review piqued my interest, and yours clinched it. I have a special love for linked short stories (I think lots of people do); they somehow feel easier to read than disparate stories. Nevertheless, I’ve been trying to push myself this month (‘short fiction in September’), and have read whole collections by Catherine Lacey and Daniel Woodrell. I also finished one by Sarah Hall late last month, and sampled some Katherine Mansfield stories. I’m working on a Helen Simpson book now but may skip some of the stories, and will probably start an Amy Bloom collection to take away with me to Edinburgh this weekend.

    • Buried In Print September 18, 2018 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      I think you’d like this one although the style is a little spare (like Chariandy’s Brother, which I know you didn’t love). I haven’t read Catherine Lacey but I find Woodrell’s stories interesting (and kinda Canadian in their tragic-ness). Helen Simpson is one of my MustReadEverything authors, so I definitely wouldn’t skip any of hers if it was me reading, but, then, I know you read in a bunch, and I don’t think I’d enjoy her style very much that way. Amy Bloom’s gotten nudged up the list for me thanks to A Life in Books’ enthusiasm for her work, but I haven’t made it there yet. Which one are you eyeing for your holiday?

      • Rebecca Foster September 19, 2018 at 2:02 am - Reply

        I stalled on the Simpson for now, so I’m going to take Bloom with me. The first half of the Woodrell collection was amazing, but the second half was pretty unmemorable (another problem I can have with stories — inconsistent quality!).

        • Buried In Print September 19, 2018 at 6:49 am - Reply

          If you were to stack eight to ten novels by a single author together, you would probably feel the same way. Although I tend to think it is as much about some stories reaching the author and others not, but sometimes a story or two does seem to come from another time in the author’s writing life. Which Amy Bloom are you packing?

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