________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 13 . . . . November 28, 2014


When We Were Good.

Suzanne Sutherland.
Toronto, ON: Sumach Press/Three O'Clock Press, 2013.
227 pp., trade pbk. & ebook, $14.95 (pbk.), $9.95 (ebook).
ISBN 978-1-927513-11-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927513-13-2 (ebook).

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Jocelyn Reekie.

***½ /4



The subway doors opened and I heard five heavy, hurried steps coming toward me.

"Can you hear me? Are you all right down there?" a voice said.

"N n no. Y yes. I I'm not. I'm not huh, hurt or anything, but but but my chest is too tight? It's like I c c can't breathe."

"Okay. Just stay calm, all right? Stay still, don't try to move. Stay still. We're going to get you out of here, all right? What's your name?"

"K Katherine B b Boat m man."

"You're going to be okay, Katherine. You're going to be all right."

"Oh huh oh kay."

The train was stopped. He'd stopped it, the driver. He'd stopped the train because of me, because I was just lying there, because I couldn't find it, because the answer to everything was gone. It stopped, the train, with all the people in it. I stopped everyone. They were stuck because of me.


And then there were paramedics and police. "You had a panic attack," a professionally calm woman in a uniform told me, "from the shock of the train coming at you. But why were you down on the tracks in the first place? How could anything be so bad you thought it was worth it?"

"I I didn't," I said. "I didn't think. I didn't I didn't want to die."

"So why, then?" Why did you do it?"

There were three reasons, really: Marie's bitter, crushing disappointment; Megan's laughter—that cruel sneer; and Grandma's last feeble breaths. But I couldn't tell her. I couldn't make my mouth form the words.

It is January, the beginning of Katherine Boatman's last term of high school, and her grandmother—the one person Katherine could count on day after day, week after week, year after year—has died. Katherine is an only child. Her mother is a television news reporter; her father is a financial tycoon. They are driven in their highly successful careers and are rarely home. The fridge and cupboards are almost bare, though money is certainly not the issue. Neither of Katherine's parents cooks, nor does she. In her house, being left alone most of the time, and meals out, is Katherine's 'norm'.

      Things are no better on the friendship front. Katherine's best friend's much less wealthy but always available family has been her other safe haven since she was a small child. However, last summer, Katherine had a relationship with Megan's older brother, Jack. They kept it secret, but Megan found out. Since then, Megan has turned mean and spiteful, and it is clear to Katherine the girls' lifelong friendship is no more. In the fall, Jack went off to university, and in spite of promises he would keep in touch, he hasn't.

      Full of grief with the loss of her grandmother, Katherine has no one at all to lean on. She is left to her own devices to sort it all out.

      In this novel, author Suzanne Sutherland has tackled the usual things that arise as teens stumble toward separating themselves from family and childhood and discovering who they are now: friendship, boy girl hook ups and break ups and sexual identity questions, family issues. However, When We Were Good is not your usual coming-of-age story.

      Sutherland starts Katherine's last high school term with Katherine's English class studying Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion, and she references the novel throughout the book. Ondaatje's book is set in Toronto in the 1920s and '30s. As the story progresses, readers learn the real politics involved in a city built largely by migrant workers, whose labour and sacrifices were buried under a distorted history of how the city grew from an unknown town to a major urban center. Ondaatje follows the lives of some of the migrants involved in the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct, the waterworks, and other important Toronto structures, exposes the division of classes and the abuses visited on the poor by the wealthy, and explores grief and romance: what it is, how it plays out differently in different lives. Wikipedia says Ondaatje's novel is " a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity."

      Sutherland's book is also set in Toronto, and while it is not on the level of Ondaatje's writing, this first time novelist also explores what the city is—its contemporary culture—and the themes of rich versus poor, distortions, secrecy, revelations, grief, and romance, in significant ways. The vehicle of Ondaatje's book is history; the vehicle of Sutherland's book is also history—in this case, the history of Katherine's relationships.

      Katherine's grief peels layers of skin off her. Grief, plus secrets she has kept buried deep inside herself, transform and translate her identity in ways she could not have imagined.

      A stranger's challenge—find a way to do something really good with a $50 bill—becomes incredibly hard, life almost overwhelms her, romance is transfigured.

      Like Ondaatje, Sutherland also reorganizes time to tell the story. The beginning is almost the ending, and the book comes full circle from beginning to end.

      Some readers (especially those of us who did not grow up with the word 'like' used as a part of speech other than an introduction to a simile or a verb) may find the dialogue somewhat off putting in places and stilted in others, but few will fail to be pulled into this first person narrative. There is an abundance of useful and sometimes wonderful images (...even with a hundred kids between us fighting to catch their buses home, I found the back of her head—spiked out and freshly dyed black—in the crowd, as if there was a giant arrow pointing to her; The pummelling guitars and the gruff wistfulness of the singer's delivery made me want to pound my fists on my chest loud enough to piss off the neighbours), quirky humour where one least expects it, and soul wrenching honesty. Katherine is a protagonist who really lives.

      Expect more from this author.

Highly Recommended.

Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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