A SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH by John Miller (Dundurn), 286 pages, $21.99 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
John Miller follows up his debut, The Featherbed, with another compelling tale about Jewish immigrant life in Toronto in the 30s and 40s, this time with a nifty political twist.
Toshy is a headstrong guy toughened up by having to live with a cleft palate. He and his two sisters - Lil, the radical medical student, and Bessie, widowed at age 22 - are tight, so tight that Toshy's willing to make huge sacrifices for them. We don't know the half of them until close to the end of the book.
The narrative unfolds in strands, one set in 30s T.O., where Emma Goldman has taken up residence and is influencing Lil, another in prison, where Toshy is sitting out a sentence for theft, and the third inside the retirement home where Toshy and Bessie live years later.
The story takes off when Toshy gets the chance to take a trip to France to help his nephew, an academic, research an old house Goldman owned in St. Tropez.
Miller is at his best and most empathetic when he gets inside Toshy's head and explores his protagonist's experience as an outsider. He also delivers some well-conceived gay sequences inside Kingston Penitentiary. And it's a pleasure to read a fictional take on Goldman's residency here.
We don't really need all the background info on her, however. It reads like a term paper and slows the narrative drastically.
But the story - especially the sequence of events that take Toshy to jail - is a real page-turner and a welcome addition to the literature of the Jewish immigrant experience.