1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s 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.
The story is told, through multiple perspectives of an eclectic mix of neighbours that make up a small section of the Scarborough suburbs.
My parents loved the neat grid of black road, the bright white stripes to differentiate the lanes, the chain-linked fences that divided our properties but gave us views into the neighbours’ yards, the young, weeping trees lining our streets. They said you couldn’t get “all this” in Hong Kong, where everybody was crammed on top of each other in tiny apartments, and they would sweep their arms to include whatever “all this” referred to, like showcase girls on “The Price is Right”.
If you’re a person who likes to imagine what’s going on in the houses you drive by (like when people forget to close their curtains at night so you can see what they’re watching on TV, or have a peek at the colour of their wall paint), then this is a book for you. The neighbours’ lives in this book intertwine through the chapters and the years. Some know each other better than others, but all are connected. Young and old alike are shocked by the string of suicides, but it’s the young who pay closest attention and are at greatest risk of being affected (by what they don’t see or hear as much as by what they do).
Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, we started watching our parents carefully, taking note of unusual things.
There’s Mrs. Da Silva, who came here from Portugal with her husband over 20 years ago, and is still amazed by how easy it is to hook up a hose to the side of the hose and have water come out when you turn it on. Other things are not so easy… how was she to know how cruel her husband would turn out to be?
Francesca has moved into the neighbourhood from Little Italy with her new husband Nick. She has everything she could have asked for, except a baby. She feels at loose ends around the house during the day and starts questioning her devotion to her husband.
Darren’s mother, who is from Jamaica, wants him to work hard at school. He does his best, but Darren would rather draw. When they get a new teacher things are looking up until he realizes he seems to be singled out as troublesome, even when he hasn’t done anything wrong.
June and Josie, both Chinese-Canadians, have always been best friends. But when June falls in love for the first time and Josie comes up against something she feels she can’t even tell her best friend about, their friendship changes into something more fragile.
The recent string of suicides is not something the neighbours want to talk about. But when Rainey moves in with her mother, she becomes fascinated by them. Maybe she’s hoping to find clues to help her understand her own suicide attempts. She is very aware of the secret nature of her “illness”.
If she could go through the motions of living, she hoped it would be enough. Some days, it was. Some days, she wished the glass walls around her would smash into pieces, and she could step away from the splinters and feel whole again. It had been so long since she had felt anything that the years prior felt like someone else’s memories.
In all of these stories, the time and place are well cemented with abundant references to news, TV shows, music, movies, clothes, makeup, hair styles, and attitudes that will take you right back to the era. (Even if you weren’t born yet!) Mentions of Barry Manilow (Copacabana!), The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, The Carol Burnett Show, and McDonald’s milkshakes had me wishing I could go back in time for a little while. Does anyone ever get McDonald’s milkshakes anymore? And do school children still feel jealous of the kids who have the big set of crayons or coloured pencils with the full range of colours?
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 Burnt Sienna, a colour that even Nav didn’t have. Only the luckiest kids could afford the thirty-six-pack Laurentians.
Overall, a satisfying, nostalgic, absorbing read. You never know what goes on behind closed doors. Or inside people’s heads.
I looked down at the dark street and knew now that there were things that lurked on the other side of doors, behind the friendly faces, underneath the polite chatter across the fences.
That Time I Loved You is a finalist for the 2018 Toronto Book Awards.
Pickle Me This: “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 Globe & Mail: “The dichotomy between what subdivisions are meant to be – community, togetherness, home, sweet home – and what may lurk in the shadows – monotony, racism, a creeping sense of failure, because if you can’t be happy here, where can you be happy? – is laid out by Leung in this compact gem of a collection of linked short stories, with spunky June as the hub and her friends and neighbours the spokes.”