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Down Sterling Road

by Adrian Michael Kelly

Down Sterling Road, the debut novel from Calgary writer Adrian Michael Kelly, follows a year in the life of 11-year-old Jacob McKnight, who lives with his father in a small Ontario town. Father and son run each day, covering miles of country road, ostensibly training Jacob for school athletics. As the novel unfolds, however, it soon becomes clear that they are both running from the past: from the accident that claimed Jacob’s twin brother, and from the bitter separation of his father and mother. Their running brings them together, and threatens to tear them apart.

While Kelly obeys many of the conventions of the “childhood after loss” genre, Down Sterling Road feels fresh and original, as if anything might happen on the page. Kelly deftly captures the timbre of the times (the late 1970s), the tenor of small-town life, and the routine horrors of elementary school as faced by a shy, unpopular boy. Experiences like sneaking into the local chocalate factory, fighting at school, and finding and losing friends will ring true for most readers.

The consistency of Kelly’s narrative perspective will also ring true. Events unfold just at the edge of Jacob’s awareness and understanding, redolent of implications that he can’t quite fathom, but which the reader will understand. The nature of the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, for example, is beyond Jacob, but readily understood by the reader, as is the seeming danger of the watchman at the chocolate factory. The delicious horror of Jacob’s father beginning to date the mother of one of his friends is played lightly, but one can feel the desperation, the loneliness of the adult characters of which their children seem unaware.

Humour is used to considerable if understated effect. This isn’t Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, but Down Sterling Road is somewhat reminiscent of those books in Kelly’s treatment of families and relationships, of tough times leavened by laughter and small pleasures (the Christmas scene, for example, is a small jewel of harmony and heartbreak). It also isn’t a sports novel, or a routine coming-of-age piece; nothing is so simple or straightforward. Instead, Kelly has fashioned a complex, unpredictable, emotionally satisfying novel that certainly deserves a look.