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Buying on Time

by Antanas Sileika

Buying On Time is a moving and entertaining collection of short stories about a Lithuanian-Canadian family set in the Toronto suburb of Weston. Ordered chronologically from 1953 to 1981, the collection has the unified feel and trajectory of a novel. But each story is also written to stand alone, which allows author Antanas Sileika the freedom to explore a wider range of themes than might be possible in one long story.

The book works on several levels. As a story of immigrants, it’s about displacement, adjustment, and belonging. As a family history, it’s about shifting currents of love, anger, and sibling rivalry, and the discoveries – good and bad – of growing up and growing old. As both a social history and the personal history of its narrator, the second of the family’s three sons, it’s about slow, irreversible change and the disappearance of time.

This is a heavy thematic load, but Buying on Time carries the weight easily. Sileika, who teaches English at Toronto’s Humber College, handles the stories with a deft touch that allows the collection’s themes to emerge naturally from its events and characters, rather than seeming artificially imposed. He skillfully evokes the time and place of the stories, and creates a believable cast of characters grappling with life in a new country.

It helps that Sileika knows his subject intimately. He grew up one of three boys in a Lithuanian family in Weston, and says he took inspiration from long conversations with his family and the “tellers of many anecdotes in church basements.” Sileika’s emotional connection with his material is especially clear when he writes about the insecurities of the outsider, and the mixed feelings of scorn and inferiority created by the pretensions and tyrannies of the family’s relations with the local British-Canadian elite, whose petty social pretensions and tyrannies inspire schemes for revenge.

Sileika’s plots are tightly organized, his language direct and unadorned. He’s often wryly observant, noting of one immigrant character, for example, that he swore only in English, “a language that didn’t really count.” With uncharacteristic vagueness, though, he waits until the final story to reveal that the family is Lithuanian (before that, we only know they’re from eastern Europe). This is distracting, but it also universalizes the family’s experience and, since Sileika drops successive clues, adds a small, ongoing mystery that further pulls the collection together.