To begin with, young Laura is rushed into packing her things into plastic bags. Just a few pages later, Sylvie is thrust into “double-time walking” with her mom.

Either of these girls could be the “in-motion” girl on the cover of Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough. But they are only two of the characters whose stories are folded into this debut novel.

The kaleidoscope of voices is one of the novel’s strengths, which suits an author who is just beginning to sculpt long-form works, and which also suits such a diverse community.

Here is a story of “found treasures”, objects and narratives; the residents of Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough are varied and striving.

“The common area was filled with a variety of second-hand furniture. Secrets were revealed in the folds of these 1980s-style sofas. Key chains from unknown places. Important notes scribbled onto pieces of worn paper never to be found again. I was sifting through my found treasures when Christy walked in. Her arms were stories in tattoos, a map to the person she once was, a person who hung out in dark corners looking for a way out, now walking the straight and narrow.”

This passage suggests that the stories herein are not glamorous, but worn and lived-in. It also suggests that readers, too, like storytellers, may have to dig deep, past what exists on the surface. The key chains hint at the varied backgrounds of the residents, the notes at their passions and remembrances, now distanced or lost. And, then, the question of what stories each character carries, visible and invisible, displayed and concealed, confessed and repressed.

Most of the characters are presented in a close, third-person perspective and sometimes one character’s chapter sheds light on another chapter’s character as well. Hina, a central character who works for a community literacy program in Rouge Hill Public School, seems to speak directly to readers, in the first-person, writing emails to her supervisor, but readers view her from a distance as well, through her connections with other characters who attend the program.

All of these characters are yearning for home, some of them further from creating it or inhabiting than others.

“People here want home. They want home because it is so darn cold outside, and all they want is their mom or dad or kids back where it’s warm. And green. They want it how it is back home. Looks ugly and tastes pretty. Simple. Served with a big spoon on a big plate. No fuss. No thinking about texture and height and taste journey or whatever. They just want home. Today is Christmas dinner. I want home. None of this foolishness. Now, go back to the kitchen and serve me home. Now.”

Many of them struggle to feel even a fleeting sense of home, when threatened and targeted in their own communities. Like Victor, an artist who aims to express his longing through his work but who is persecuted unjustly.

“If you were to ask me for the exact details of the first time I was told cops are not to be trusted, to be truthful, I wouldn’t even remember. It’s like having a memory of when you first tie a shoe by yourself. The event was so long ago. And I was told by so many, and trained by so many to protect myself, that the act of stiffening in the presence of hatred toward Black men became, and still is, as routine as putting on a shoe. Rabbit ears through the loop. Pull the laces.”

The broad cast of characters creates an accessible and fast-paced reading experience. I wholly enjoyed reading Scarborough and I eagerly await Catherine Hernandez’s next work.

Toronto Book Award 2017

One of five books nominated by this year's jury


“Scarborough delivers an orchestral impact, one small, beautiful voice at a time.”

Read the rest of the jury’s comments by clicking on the image above.