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