That Time I Loved You: Stories
“Leung has enormous potential as a writer, but there’s a layer of complexity that separates her writing from the seas of deep emotion.”
That Time I Loved You proposes linked stories of three streets in 1970s suburban Toronto. It’s a heady time: ordinary people are moving to nice houses, lawns sprawl over appropriated farmland, and first- and second-generation immigrants are reaching for the Canadian dream. Yet the neighborhood of “sister streets” (“Winnifred, Maud, and Clara Streets all met on Samuel Avenue”) is under siege by some psychic malevolence. Parents are committing suicide, and none of the neighbors can understand why.
June Lee, aged 11 to 13, narrates the framing stories with a charming candor. She’s an only child and a latchkey kid (remember those?), the daughter of hardworking professionals who leave her largely to herself. For her, the deaths are a curiosity in an increasingly interesting world: “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.”
That Time I Loved You captures a moment in Canada that echoes the American 1950s: materialism is big, children are central, and a house in the suburbs is still achievable for dedicated working families. For Canada, it’s also the age of multiculturalism. Adopted as a federal policy in 1971, the Policy of Multiculturalism was intended to allow belonging without assimilation. In the sister streets of Scarborough, the policy plays out in the lives of adults and children, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Jamaican, Indian, and Greek.
The book marks a cultural divide not between immigrants and native-born Canadians so much as between parents and children. Mrs. Da Silva, a Portuguese immigrant, wanders the neighborhood without social connection, isolated by her lack of language as much as by her hallucinations in “Flowers.”
In “Treasure,” Marilyn, the stately matriarch of area, aches to inform others that “kids were shit and seemed nothing but heartache.”
In “Sweets,” June’s grandmother Poh Poh lurks on the edge of social life, unconnected to the adults around her and only able to connect to the children through shared sweets and anti-adult defiance.
As a portrait of a moment in Toronto’s life, That Time I Loved You is vivid and engaging. Beyond that portrait, though, some crucial truth is missing. The parental suicides that tease the possibility of depth beneath the suburban gloss are explored only in passing, and if there’s a connection between the deaths, it isn’t clear. The children grow up enough to discover sexual discomfort and adult racism, but the scenarios they face are standardized to the point of parody. June’s first boyfriend disappoints her. Her best friend Josie is touched too intimately by an older man. Boys who spike the punch at parties only want sex.
Racism and homophobia enter the stories with similarly adolescent simplicity. In “Things,” Jamaican boy Darren discovers that his racist teacher treats him as dangerous and stupid, even as the same teacher elevates “model minority” students. It’s one of several stories that might benefit from a different point of view. Darren seems genuinely startled by the prospect of adult racism. What might his classmates, from their model minority vantage, make of the same scene?
“Sweets” is the collection’s most intricate story. Poh Poh’s journey through the shock of her arrival to confidence in suburban Canada is complicated by her gender non-conformity. Even before she comes to know the children, she knows her own strangeness: “Her hair was white and cut back to the scalp. . . . She was dressed in her standard black pants and black sweater. Never makeup. Nails short and square.” The history of her hair and the wigs that let her mimic femininity create a connection to Naveen, in whom “there was a secret of something both pleasurable and shameful.”
Naveen’s sexuality and gender identity trigger the book’s one vivid outbreak of violence, but he never tells his own story. He lurks as a secondary character, offering the most potential to explore real difference in an era where multiculturalism concealed intense conformity.
That Time I Loved You’s cover asks the reader to consider Leung in the tradition of John Cheever and Alice Munro. It’s too bold a request. Leung has enormous potential as a writer, but there’s a layer of complexity that separates her writing from the seas of deep emotion. As the initial deaths are swept aside, we’re left with a neighborhood farther from Cheever’s suburbia and closer to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where tensions resolve and all the children remain, somehow, above average.