I am going to apologize right off the top here: this review might be a bit ramble-y. For that, I am sorry. But reading this novel was quite an emotional experience, as I thought back to the summer of 1977 and the story of Emanuel Jaques. The book is brilliant and my mind took it all in, but I seemed to also have my own experiences, away from the novel – though related and/or triggered by the story. Together, it resulted in me having ALL THE FEELINGS. It happens. But when it happens, it can cause reviews (my reviews, anyway) to go off the rails. I am going to try very hard to make this coherent and helpful for you, so as not to do a disservice to the novel, or Anthony De Sa. (Both deserve your attention!) I fully expect to come back to this review at a later time, to clean it up a bit. For now, though, I did want to capture my thoughts and hope you’ll indulge me here. Okay, enough of the pre-ramble…onto the review:
Every now and then, if you are lucky, you encounter a book that is unputdownable. I stayed up way too late on Monday night, well past 2am, so I could finish reading Anthony De Sa’s new novel, Kicking the Sky. I was pretty foggy-headed the next day, and a little cranky (I am usually asleep by 9:30pm, oops!), but my book hangover was well worth it; De Sa’s book is wonderful and I was hooked from the very first page.
Understand, Kicking the Sky is not an easy book to read but, to me, it is a necessary story. The novel is written around the true and tragic fate of one young boy, 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques. In the summer of 1977, Jaques disappeared in downtown Toronto. Four days after he went missing, his body was found on the rooftop of a body-rub parlour on Yonge Street. Jaques had been violently beaten and raped, his body was discarded in a garbage bag. Jaques and his family were Portuguese immigrants, trying to make a good life in a new city and the boy was just trying to earn money. He was lured with the promise of $35 to help move some photographic equipment. In the press, Jacques was dubbed ‘The Shoeshine Boy’. This crime shook the entire city, outraged the Portuguese community, and brought the police and gay communities under heavy scrutiny.
In the summer of 1977, I was 10-years-old. My family lived just a little north of the city of Toronto, and just a bit west of Yonge Street. We could easily walk to Yonge and hop on the bus to head downtown, something we often did from the age of 12 or 13 on. My family always had a newspaper subscription (or two), and watching the nightly news was a regular part of our evenings. In 1977, I learned about, and followed, two news stories that scared me greatly, and that have sat with me as heavy sadness ever since: the disappearance and death of Emanuel Jaques was one of those stories. Jaques’ death (how and why it happened) was perhaps still a bit abstract to my young mind, but so much was relatable and frightening. I understood a beloved young boy had been violently killed and parents were afraid for their children. I knew the city was in shock, and I grasped the anger and heartbreak within the Portuguese community. I also remember being surprised and confused over the police actions at that time.
Anthony De Sa gives us a window into this time and place in Kicking the Sky. This is very much a coming of age story. We have a 12-year-old main character, Antonio Rebelo, who has one foot in childhood and one, prematurely, thrown into adulthood. Within the story we behold a loss of innocence, struggles with moral questions and immoral acts, and the beginnings of sexual awareness. Antonio’s story plays out in contrast to Emanuel Jaques’ and makes for an interesting parallel because, as Antonio’s mother worries, it could have just as easily been Antonio instead of Emanuel. Violence abounds in this novel, it’s almost all-encompassing as we witness it: through the story of Emanuel Jaques’ death, from violence of parents, delivered upon their children, spousal abuses, and then, too, we hear about other violent acts, as we learn more about the lives (past and present) of Antonio’s friends and family.
There is a lot going on here, but de Sa is fully in control of his story. For all of the heartbreak and cruelty within, there is also a story brimming with humanity, empathy and sensitivity. Through De Sa’s talents and personal experiences, we are invited into a world we may not otherwise be able to know well at all. I was very interested in many stylistic aspects of the novel, but there were two themes (or motifs?) in particular that stood out for me: I was very taken by the use of perspective in De Sa’s writing. By this, I don’t mean the alternating voices of different characters, I mean actual physical perspectives. De Sa often takes his story up, to an elevation above the action – rooftops, hydro poles, a raised sleeping loft and ladder, and an uncle’s shoulders are all employed – changing the view and adding an interesting layer to the narrative. The second point of interest was the (sad) use of animals, and the harms inflicted upon them by humans. Yes, this made for upsetting reading at moments, but it serves a purpose and is not gratuitous in its inclusion.
I know this is a novel that is going to sit with me for a long time. I have taken the characters into my heart and find myself thinking about them, wondering if they are okay, hoping for the best. I want De Sa’s book to be discovered by many readers and I highly recommend you seek it out. I hope you will be as amazed by this wonderful book as I have been.
Doubleday Canada has created a moving book trailer, please take a look: