Kitchen sink fiction

Savvy Sky

THE OPENING SKY by Joan Thomas (McClelland & Stewart), 359 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN

As I read the books on this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards short list, I’m beginning to understand what the 2014 jury was responding to: a sense of place – no, a sense of Canadian place.

Montreal is a major character in My October, Sweetland could only be set in Newfoundland, and The Back Of The Turtle makes vivid an island off the coast of British Columbia.

Don’t worry – the prairies aren’t left out. The Opening Sky is set in Winnipeg, and author Joan Thomas makes sure we get to know its downtown core, parks and gentrified neighbourhoods.

In one of those changing ‘hoods live Liz and Aiden, whose world starts to fall apart when their 19-year-old daughter, Sylvie, gets pregnant. At first their crises are personal: Aiden’s a shrink who used to know how to talk to Sylvie and suddenly can’t Liz, who works at a birth control agency, is mortified that her own child hasn’t grasped the basics of contraception.

But soon their relationship is also suffering, old wounds are opened and new differences emerge.

Thomas not only knows her location – those monster mosquitoes in nearby cottage country, those frigid winters in town – but is extremely adept at building interpersonal conflict.

Sylvie is an anti-capitalist eco-activist who knows everything about landfill and mocks those who don’t, but knows nothing about child-rearing. Her mother is not impressed.

Sylvie’s boyfriend, Noah, a promising scientist, seems to lack the human touch required for parenthood. But it’s his mother, Maggie, an insufferable, controlling earth mother type, whose patronizing attitude has Liz in a lather. Liz and Maggie have had serious issues in the past – these are baby boomers still paying for their young-adult excess – that get magnified as Sylvie’s pregnancy advances.

Thomas gives each of her characters a distinct arc, and many are changed by their experience in beautiful ways.

Anyone who’s been baffled by the choices their children make will appreciate this story. | @susangcole

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