I recently joined NetGalley, where you can sign up to read books in exchange for reviews. I picked up Kicking the Sky, by Anthony Sa, a coming of age tale set in the Portuguese immigrant community in 1970’s Toronto. The story takes places after the disappearance of twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques aka The Shoeshine Boy. The twelve-year-old narrator, Antonio Rubelo, and his friends, Manny and Ricky, make a pact to be brothers and see each other through good and bad. They need all help they can muster in a neighborhood full of hustlers, prostitutes, and massage parlors.
Events take a dark turn when Emanuel is found raped and murdered. Antonio finds himself, hurt, vulnerable and full of questions, but the adults in his life are too busy, too hard-pressed to guide him as they too are struggling to survive in their rundown neighborhood. The confused circumstances set stage for Antonio and his friends to come under the influence of James, whom I would describe as a one of the shadiest characters I have had the pleasure to read.
The mystery of James runs through the heart of the book. Is he a good man rundown on his luck, or is he another pervert like Emanuel’s murderers? Antonio himself does not know what to think. And his feelings are complicated by the fact of his own awkward sexual attraction to the twenty-one-year old James. Antonio is a engaging character in his own right. He tries to do right by his friends. He tries to be the man his father wants him to be. It is heartbreaking to see his innocence tainted by the harsh world he forced to confront.
Another central theme is the Portuguese immigrant experience. His parents try to keep alive their native culture in the face of a hegemonic culture that seeks to reduce their identity to nothing more than cheap workers. The various aspects of Portuguese culture were a delight to read especially since I know nothing of Portugal.
Setting aside the lurid episodes of child abuse, physical and sexual, homophobia, racism, the awkwardness and confusion of prepubescent sexuality, the book does a good job of balancing the dark with hope. There were a few exciting boys-will-be-boys episodes. The prose, however, was not to my liking because I found it too ‘simple’. Child narrators do bore me easily; however the issues in the book were far from simple, so the depth of the story easily overcame my distaste for his prose style.
If you do not mind a dark, gritty read, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.