WHAT WE ALL LONG FOR by Dionne Brand (Knopf), 319 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Wanna bliss out? Read Dionne Brand writing about Toronto. The opening of What We All Long For - in which she describes riding the TTC on a Monday morning in spring - is so vivid, so convincing, you wish it would go on for pages.
But this is a novel, and characters intrude. You do wish occasionally that the 20-something artists, poets and store operators trying to live and love in downtown T.O. during the 2002 World Cup would just disappear for a while so Brand could keep unleashing the poet inside.
It's not that these characters aren't interesting. They're diverse, talented, bristling with rage, regret and guilt.
Oku, a poet with culinary flair, hasn't told his demanding father - who has footed the bill - that he's dropping out of school. Bike courier Carla is still reeling from her mother's suicide over a decade ago and her brother's chronic delinquency. Jackie, whose parents moved to Toronto from Halifax's black community, runs a clothing store on Queen West and has a thing for white men.
As a young child, photo artist Tuyen came to the city from Vietnam with her family, minus her brother Quy, who was lost on the journey. Every member of her family feels his absence all the time. We learn how Quy survived in episodes written in the first person as he decides whether to make his way to Toronto to rejoin his family.
As in Brand's previous novels, the experience of displacement figures prominently, but the narrative is less episodic and there isn't really a single moment you could call experimental. This is a straight-ahead narrative, craftily conceived so that the relationships morph and the tensions build.
True, you'll feel like you're reading poetry compromised by characters. But it's some of the best writing you'll see this year.