Carrianne Leung addresses suburban secrets and domestic disaster in That Time I Loved You, her Toronto Book Award-longlisted collection of connected stories. At once a love letter to and an excoriation of 1970s Scarborough, Leung’s book deftly explores the sub in “suburban,”diving into the deep-buried, the ugly underneath.
“Her English was not good, but she knew what they were asking” begins “Sweets,” with a line that made me thrum with apprehension for the unnamed “she.” Leung’s technique is expert. The lyricism of this prose ebbs only in deference to the voice of the preteen June, who narrates three of these stories, including “Wheels”: “The year after all those parents killed themselves, something equally earth-shattering happened: I fell in love. Ka-boom.”
Leung’s opening lines hit like a gut punch or wreathe you in a slower kind of menace: “On that day, the last day, the primroses were especially pretty” begins “Flowers,” a story about a rash of parent suicides, told from the perspective of one of the parents.
June is the collection’s throughline, the only first-person narrator, and a prominent side character otherwise. June generally doesn’t notice her economic privilege and can be ungrateful. But in “Kiss,” as a side character, she offers to watch Amityville Horror with her friend Josie, despite loathing the genre herself, because she senses Josie needs drawing out rather than demands that she feel better.
The other high points of the collection are “Treasure,” an absurd and poignant tale about a magnanimous, elderly thief-matriarch; “Things,” a story that takes up residence in the ribcage, about a Jamaican-Canadian boy dreaming big while struggling against his racist teacher; and the aforementioned “Sweets,” a character study of June’s grandmother, Poh Poh, as she forges a friendship (of actions more than words) with June’s shy queer friend, Nav.
Nav, though, is the collection’s one sticking point—Nav never gets to be the observer, and he hovers on the periphery so frequently that this omission is confusing, considering the panoply of narrators the book cycles through. Some of the less memorable tales in That Time, e.g. “Rain,” could have been improved were Nav granted a role as narrator.
Yet overall That Time I Loved You beautifully illuminates what it chooses to touch on. Interrogative and thoughtful, this collection serves style and substance in spades.