“1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves” is the opening line of ‘Grass’, itself the first and foregrounding story in a linked collection about a neighbourhood in Toronto and the impact a series of suicides has on its residents, told from the perspective of the young narrator.
June – youngest child of Chinese immigrants – acknowledges the wider cultural events of the era: the Happy Meal is introduced, Khomeini returns to Iran, Michael Jackson releases Off the Wall, but these historical touchstones can’t compare to the suicides, which are her – and her peers’ – first experiences of death.
The neighbourhood is still new, the promises of suburbia still fresh, and even the adults start wonder what went wrong. Carolyn Finley’s father shoots himself in the head. Georgie’ Da Silva’s mother ingests bleach. Larry Lems’ father drinks himself to death, which counts because, “sometimes killing yourself is slow and takes time”.
There are more such deaths as the collection unfolds, and with no explanation because how does a child even begin to do that? Besides, June and her friends have other concerns: their approaching adolescence for a start and all which that entails, only the suicides are always there, in the background and the possibility of more ever-present. The children begin to look for warning signs in their parents: a usually well-groomed father wears a creased shirt to work; a mother forgets to put garlic in the moussaka. The tiniest change could be an ill-omen.
The darker side of suburbia – and the neighbourhood-as-microcosm – is well-explored, but Leung’s stories (which are not all dark, not all despair) cover so much ground – family dynamics, class differences, racial division – so artfully, that they are a welcome addition to the canon, refuting the persistent idea that certain and particular modes of living are sure-fire routes to happiness. As one of the adults is heard to lament, ‘But it had all been going so well!’
From That Time I Loved You, Liveright, 2019