In That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung takes us into Scarborough in the 1970s, where an idyllic veneer barely conceals the various dramas in the lives of its residents. The book starts with June, a Chinese-Canadian girl who observes her neighbours with unnerving insight. She tells us that parents in their neighbourhood are committing suicide, and that the children can’t understand why. As the book goes on, we begin to understand the lives of the residents, and while we don’t delve too deep into the specific motivations of the residents who killed themselves, we do get an underlying sense of despair and various forms of loneliness among the residents in general.
The book started off a bit slow for me, and while the lives of the characters portrayed in the first few chapters had their interesting moments (one woman heard hateful words from the flowers she tended and another woman seemed trapped in her fairly new marriage), none of them really grabbed me. It was the later chapters I found most compelling, and made me bump up my rating to 4 stars on Goodreads.
My favourite chapters, and to my mind, the strongest by far, are:
- “Things” – Darren’s story about being Jamaican-Canadian and dealing with a math teacher who keeps picking on him for no discernible reason feels heartbreakingly real. There’s a moment where he remembers something his mother told him at a mall when he was younger that was just bam! in terms of emotional impact. We get a hint about how his actions in the chapter turn out later on, but I would have loved to spend a lot more time in his life.
- “Kiss” – Josie’s story about feeling overshadowed by her more outgoing best friend June and trying to be the perfect daughter and niece was very relatable, and I wanted her to have a starring role in a story all her own. In this chapter, she also had to deal with a situation that was horribly wrong, and I thought Leung was masterful in her portrayal of Josie’s growing discomfort.
- “Sweets” – June’s grandmother Poh Poh getting used to life in Canada after immigrating from Hong Kong — I love, love, love the subtlety of the details that are revealed about her life and her character, and the delicacy with which each bit of information is revealed over the course of the chapter.
- There’s also a side character named Nav who I really wish had gotten a chapter of his own. I loved him in the “Sweets” chapter, and would’ve loved to see more of him.
Overall, this was a strong book. There are many examples of suburban fiction that subvert the idyllic image of suburban life, but often those books focus on white, middle class families. Leung in turn subverts the suburban fiction genre with the sheer diversity of her characters, and it’s a welcome perspective as it likely does represent the diversity of Scarborough suburbs in the 1970s, and finally brings the stories of these communities to Can Lit suburban fiction.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.