I’ve been looking forward to Anthony De Sa’s Kicking The Sky ever since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. While I’m not familiar with the Giller-nominated De Sa’s previous work, I am familiar with the murder and the neighbourhood that play a key part in his latest story, and I was curious to see how he would weave them together to create a work of fiction.
Kicking The Sky opens in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood, two days into the real-life disappearance of 12-year-old shoeshine boy and recent immigrant Emanuel Jacques. It’s narrated by 11-year-old Antonio Rebelo, the Canadian-born son of parents from the Azores, the same islands that Emanuel is from, and a true good boy. Antonio believes that he and his two best friends can find Emanuel and return their lives to sunny days of alley exploration and overall carefreeness.
But fears and overprotective parents prevent the boys from their search. Then Emanuel’s beaten and raped body is found on the roof of a Yonge Street body rub parlour and the city, and Antonio’s world, begins to change.
While the story of the Shoeshine Boy murder and its impact on Toronto is one that has been told many times, De Sa uses it as a launching point to tell Antonio’s story and his transition from an innocent boy to someone who knows and has seen more than he should.
Those looking for nostalgia and a glossy look at Toronto in 1977/1978 would do well to pass on this book. It goes to dark, and sometimes disturbing places. There were actually more than a few moments left me feeling so uncomfortable that I questioned their believability.
The main reason for my unquestioning was because this book took place in a world that was largely foreign to me, someone who doesn’t have immigrant parents (or even grandparents) and has never been an 11-year-old boy or lived in the ‘70s. Considering that this book is largely set just a few blocks away from where I call home, I was expecting a story that was far more relatable then what I got. It wasn’t but this isn’t a bad thing; it just meant that it took a few chapters, and some conversations with guys about what their pre-pubescent lives were like, for me to completely trust De Sa’s version of Toronto.
It also helped that narrator Antonio is a wonderfully written character who comes off as authentic and real. He’s also very likable, which is important since the world he inhabits often isn’t. De Sa allows him to have well-placed introspective moments that provide reason and insight into his actions without being over-the-top or worse, too adult-like.
That balanced approach can also be found in De Sa’s writing. It manages to be both clean and vivid, providing just enough description that you can easily picture the lane ways of 1977 Little Portugal without getting bogged down or distracted.
I was a bit disappointed by the ending of this book though to be honest, I don’t know how else De Sa could have wrapped it up. While some plot lines wrap up naturally, the ending of others seemed force and overall, I found the last couple of chapters rather unsatisfactory and a bit of a disappointment for a work that overall was so strong.
But despite the less-than-great ending, I still recommend this book, especially to anyone who has an interest in Toronto’s more recent past. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone who truly believes that the past was a better, and more wholesome place, because according to Kicking The Sky, beneath the surface, it was anything but.