COURAGE MY LOVE By Sarah Dearing (Stoddart), 208 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
SARAH DEARING reading with Anne Carson, Wednesday (April 11), at the Brigantine Room (235 Queen's Quay West), 7:30 pm. $8, members free. 416-973-4000.
the soundscape is unmistakable -- cheesy pop blasting out of, naturally, the Global Cheese shop blurs with the reggae rolling out of Sanci Fruits.
It's stupidly cold for late March, and I'm grumbling about it to novelist Sarah Dearing as we wander through Kensington Market.
She smirks at my hothouse-flower behaviour, the collar of her oversized vintage shearling jacket up under her chin. The Toronto-based writer doesn't give a shit about the weather -- Kensington Market is haven and heaven to her. This is the home she finally found eight years ago after leaving a very repressed London, Ontario, 13 years before that.
We round the corner onto Baldwin, or Fish Street, as Dearing likes to call it, which emits the persistent pong of salt cod. No wonder the rebel writer happily settled in here. Market people have everything small-town white-bread Ontarians lack: delicious diversity, artistic ambitions and a spontaneity the insurance guys back home couldn't dream of.
"London is a town where there are all kinds of pressures to make nice," she says over tea at the Moon Bean. "This is the first place I ever came to where I could do whatever I wanted."
She's gripping her mug, smiling nervously as she measures every word, her blond curls covering her face. She has that worried, oh-god-I'm-being-interviewed reticence, but her new novel, Courage My Love, shows none of this tentativeness.
In it her heroine, Phillipa, squirms against the tedium of her life in a Yorkville condo as the trophy wife of yuppie ad exec Brendan. A visit to Kensington Market inspires her to throw over her old life, change her name to Nora and move way downtown.
Dearing mercilessly observes the upwardly mobile Brendan and his gang of cottage-going friends, wickedly skewering the "yoohoo" crowd waving out the window at Hemingway's.
And she's loving in her evocation of the Market's tiny community, those desperate to make art, those desperate to drink and the many who are just fine doing both. Her characters, especially a menacing yet reassuring muralist, are rich and real.
But place has always been the thing for Dearing.
In her first novel, 1998's The Bull Is Not Killed, a recent university grad starts hanging out in a small Portuguese village and becomes obsessed with a Roma woman. Portugal (where the bulls aren't killed in the bullring, hence the title) is a main character, just as the Market is the centrepiece of Courage My Love.
From the first paragraph describing Phillipa's nausea at a whiff of shark's entrails, we're plunked into the environment with her, sensing everything as she takes a room over Asylum or socks a few beers back at Amadeu.
The Yorkville scenes are a perfect foil for Kensington -- manicured, over-developed, gentrified.
"I put Phillipa in Yorkville because in the 60s it had some of the same qualities as the Market. In fact, I have two drinking pals at Amadeu who are graduates of Rochdale."
It's a wonder she's lived so long in one place, given the nature of the shoe fixation she confesses to as we drool over the meticulously shelved used runners and boots at Le Gossip.
"You'll notice from my books that I have a little bit of a fetish," she says, breathing in the atmosphere. I glance down at her faded red Docs. "Shoes represent flight. I never wear high heels, because I can't run in them. And I'm not a planner. I feel claustrophobic when I have plans. I like the Market because I can walk down the street and see people I haven't seen in five years and go out and do something with them."
Writing came naturally to her once she arrived, and Courage My Love began as a short story she wrote during her first year in T.O.
Then she went to journalism school -- for a nanosecond.
"I just didn't have the killer instinct. We were taught to check our interview subjects' medicine cabinets for scandals. We learned that the right answer to the question, "When you go to a funeral, what photographs should you steal from the household?" is "Take the whole album so you can scoop the competition.' I figured I'd be better off making things up."
But a day job was necessary. And like Phillipa, who's got one foot in Yorkville while she flirts with the scuzzier side of the Market, Dearing has experienced a kind of double life.
"I worked at the Writers Union, and it was quite a responsible position in the film division. Every time I put on a suit I felt like fraud -- I felt like I was putting on my mother's clothes."
There's no pretending now. The Bull Is Not Killed was critically well-received and was considered important enough to generate some flak: a CBC Sunday Morning panel determined that it didn't qualify as CanLit because none of the characters were Canadian.
Outraged, Dearing went back to her new manuscript and turned Phillipa into an Irish-American. "Spite is a good motivator for me," she admits.
Courage My Love, with its familiar locations and edgier satire, can only advance the career plot.
But her next project will take her into darker, more emotional places. She's just made a disturbing discovery about her late father, Peter, who died when she was eight. Born in London, England, one of six children of a single mother, he was sold as a young boy -- "indentured" is her word for it -- to a politically influential sculptor who was later knighted. A letter her mother discovered makes it clear that sex was part of the deal.
She's not sure where her research in Europe will lead her, but Dearing imagines she'll get some insight into who her father was. A theatre instructor and actor, he was a huge, charismatic presence (I knew him as the theatre director at the fine arts camp Manitou Wabing), and his death robbed her home of joy and energy.
"I felt ripped off when my father died, and the feeling only intensified after I finished my first book. I went into a kind of void. I didn't know that many writers who could talk to me about what that felt like. He might have given me some comfort."
She stops now, drifting, and there's a short, sad silence. For a second, I doubt if she knows what kind of risks she's taking with the next book.
Not that she doesn't take chances. We pass by the store Courage My Love, and I ask about whether she got permission to use the name for her book.
"They were fine with that. But then they told me that someone once tried to open another (non-vintage) Courage My Love. It went out of business really fast. Another woman wrote a book called Courage My Love and she was dead within a year."
She shrugs, and we turn the corner onto St. Andrews, shuddering with the chill as as the rhythmic grooves jangling out of African Drums and Art Crafts take over the street.