It’s fitting that a story which includes the visionary figure of Buckminster Fuller is rooted in possibility rather than history: “It is not intended to follow the precise history of what was, but rather to imagine a story that might have been.”
This note precedes the novel and sets readers’ expectations before we meet either Frankie or Buckminster Fuller, so we are prepared to hop from fact to fiction as deftly as Mr. Fung and Mr Koga: “Since Mr. Fung spoke Chinese and Mr. Koga Japanese, they met on rocky isles of English.” Here, readers meet on the island of story.
Throughout the novel, celestial and ephemeral images settle lightly on the narrative, as in the description of Miss McCracken and Miss Hawke (“Their hair was white as clouds; their blouses too. Jesus dangled from each of their necks.”) and Julia and Augusta’s daydreams (“‘How many of us would it take to reach the top?’ A hundred, a thousand, standing on each other’s shoulders? Everything in the cig city was high, out of reach, even on tippy-toes. It was, the sisters supposed, not so different from living among the mountains.”
These figurative details and characters’ reaching afford the narrative a lightness, help it to avoid being weighed down, as is Frankie’s experience, by prejudice and misunderstanding.
“‘Uri and I know what it is to be singled out for the wrong reason,’ Hannah fluttered on with an inexhaustible sigh. ‘To have your life pulled out from under you. The doors shut in your face.’”
As a Jew, Hannah relates to Frankie’s persecution, recognizes his struggle in the wake of the internment of Japanese Canadians (citizens) during WWII. She offers tangible aid which, with evidence of Frankie’s ambition and dedication, is a safe bet.
When Frankie leaves Vancouver, leaves the west coast of Canada, he lodges with the Fujimotos in Toronto but, soon, he is fetching other new arrivals and bringing them back like a tour guide (and, in time, like the city is his home). And, throughout, the growth of the city parallels Frankie’s dreams and ambitions.
The construction of the subway also offers a startling contrast to the “floating city”, one group tunnelling downward – a miraculous feat in its own way – and another embodying a sense of upwardness. (Scenes like these also demonstrate how suitable the novel’s nomination for this year’s Toronto Book Award truly is.)
“Cut and cover, cut and cover: that was the method. Below and out of sight, the rest of the work continued. Eight-car trains would deliver passengers from northern Toronto all the way down to Union Station at twenty miles per hour from morning to night. Like the train that had brought him here, tunnelling through the mountains, through darkness and out into light, only stopping at station after station instead of town after town.”
The emphasis on communities small and large (households and social groups) simmers beneath the story, all the way through, sounding a tone even as the workers’ tools reverberate.
He smelled Hannah’s lavender perfume in his dreams, and rolled a pebble the shape of Bucky’s tetrahedron, nature’s building block, between his fingers. He woke with a start. Home, he thought, when he emerged onto Front Street with the solid edifice of Union Station behind him and the towering Bank of Commerce ahead. He held his arms out, closed his eyes, and imagined the tilting of the Earth on its axis as it spun, the slight pressure at the side of his one foot. Or maybe it was just the rumble of the night workers digging out the subway tunnel below.
Home is where we dig, where we float, where we struggle and overcome.