Friday, October 24, 2014

Baldwin Street by Alvin Rakoff

Toronto stories are immigrant stories. I am always surprised when I start reading a book set in Toronto and it's not about immigrants. I think one of the biggest things I'm getting from doing this blog is more insight into the immigrant experience, and the complex depth of national and cultural identity across generations.

This novel is about life on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market in the late 1930s. I loved reading such a well-drawn slice of the history of the market, which is very different today but has managed to maintain a sense of self-containment and other-ness within Toronto. This book was so, so much better than Courage My Love, which is the other Kensington-specific Toronto book I have encountered so far. During that time (the 1930s), the market was very Jewish - almost entirely so - and the neighbourhood culture was largely informed by Jewish custom. I think this novel would be a great companion to The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, which also features Jewish immigrants to Toronto and takes place just a few years before, in the time leading up to the Christie Pits riot - an event referred to multiple times in Baldwin Street.

I must say I do prefer pre-war Jewish history in fiction (see the above-mentioned Lucio Burke, as well as Cabbagetown) to the slew of Holocaust-survivor fiction set in Toronto that I have read. I think I just find the buildup to the Holocaust much more interesting - and worthy of contemplation - than the aftermath.

The story follows many different characters in the neighbourhood through big moments in their lives during the buildup to the second world war. The characters are all linked in some vague way to Leonard Abelson, who is the implied (third-person) narrator. The first story is Leonard losing his virginity. Each chapter can be read as a standalone story, but you do get a grander sense of the setting and characters when reading the novel as a whole. There are a few pretty funny moments (such as some of the young men riding a horse-drawn cart to the university) but mostly the stories are gritty, or sweet, or heartbreaking (and usually all three).

The author does a great job of creating a sense of the community spirit in the neighbourhood, and delves into a lot of the detail of day-to-day operations without making it boring or monotonous. I wasn't a big fan of the writing style, however; the short, staccato sentences often didn't do justice to scenes that should have had more flow and poetry. I think if the book had been much longer I would have had a hard time with the style.

As it was, the stories took me by surprise with their emotional impact. This is a quiet but very moving novel, and if you read closely, it has some powerful things to say about life and about purpose.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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