It’s 1983: Reagan is president and the Cold War has escalated to the point that a nuclear strike means mutually assured destruction. Russia has just raised tensions by shooting down a South Korean civilian airliner, killing everyone on board. Closer to home, a terrorist group dubbed the Squamish Five is making headlines with a series of bombing campaigns against local industry. Meanwhile, Jane Z., a bookish, socially awkward 19-year-old with an unpronounceable Polish last name, has come to Vancouver from a stripmalled Edmonton neighbourhood to attend the University of British Columbia as a Slavonic studies undergraduate.
Jane ends up at Trutch House, a grubby rooming house with a kitchen that exudes a “complex synthesis [of] ripe compost, burnt garlic, beans on the soak.” The residents of Trutch House are a motley group of vegetarian anti-nuke activists that includes Dieter, a Marxist poli-sci student from Saskatchewan; Sonia, a feminist teacher in training; and Pete, an anarcho-feminist-pacifist with a trust fund, and the group’s natural leader. Trutch House is also ground zero for NAG! – the Non-violent Action Group. Although initially excluded from NAG!’s meetings, Jane often hears the strains of “We Shall Overcome” wafting from behind closed doors.
Caroline Adderson’s absorbing third novel is told as a series of reminiscences 20 years after a “bomb p2lot gone awry” lands Jane with a criminal conviction and Pete and Sonia with prison sentences. Now a respectably middle-class copywriter married to a doctor, Jane’s more or less successful attempt to move on with her life is dashed with the thud of a newspaper on her porch. The front-page article revisits Jane’s role in the bombing as background to announcing Sonia’s release from prison. The article unleashes a flood of mixed emotions and, more practically, raises the question of how Jane should explain her past to her 15-year-old son. Once the article hits, however, the averted gazes of local parents are combined with admiring ones from her son’s friends, who are impressed with Jane’s terrorist street cred.
The novel builds by filling in the gaps between Jane’s arrival at Trutch House and the circumstances surrounding the bombing. Jane initially regards NAG!’s politics with cringing bemusement, but is won over to their belief in humanity’s imminent doom after she sees the documentary If You Love this Planet. (“This is what people feel like when the doctor tells them they have cancer,” Jane thinks.) When an invitation to join NAG! comes her way, Jane jumps at it. It’s clear, though, that desire for social acceptance plays a prominent role in her decision: “I’d been dragging my loneliness around for too long. Also, I didn’t want to die.”
NAG!’s members embark on a series of “actions” of varying degrees of benignity. They change local street signs named after famous battles, steal black lawn jockeys, and distribute flyers at a technology conference dressed in radiation suits. At Trutch House, they play a modified version of Monopoly where the biggest capitalist loses.
Jane’s attachment to the cause parallels her attachment to Sonia, the object of her unrequited love. Sonia, blind to everything except the approaching extermination of the world’s children, is perpetually on the brink of tears. When Pascal, a teen on the lam from treatment for terminal cancer, shows up, Sonia decides she must save him as well. Pete, meanwhile, becomes increasingly strident, his feminism overshadowed by his womanizing.
The Sky is Falling isn’t a thematic stretch for Adderson, who has dealt with societal acceptance before. Her first novel, A History of Forgetting, included a gay character murdered by Nazi skinheads and another who becomes Holocaust obsessed. Her second, Sitting Practice, dealt with a young bride coming to terms with her sexuality after a car accident leaves her wheelchair-bound. The momentum of The Sky is Falling comes from our curiosity about how the repressed, Chekhov-loving Jane manages to get mixed up with explosives, but its soul is in Adderson’s tremendous wry wit, effortless dialogue, and tightly controlled characters.
Part of Adderson’s gift is an ability to express her characters’ ethos in unexpectedly down-to-earth terms. “Pete crawled across the dirty shag and laid his golden head, heavy with ideology, in my lap”; or “This was why anarchism would never work, I thought. No one would ever want to wash the kitchen floor.”
Our post-9/11 era is often glibly bemoaned as a time of innocence lost. The Sky is Falling immerses us thoroughly and believably in the different paranoia of a not-so-bygone decade. Addison suggests that fear is always looking for something to attach itself to, but that real danger often comes from the place we least expect. In the end, the bomb that goes off is not the bomb the group intended; Jane and Sonia’s failure to alert authorities to Pascal’s whereabouts means he may die; and Jane’s nuclear fears morph into sleepless anxiety about her son’s safety.
Nuanced, intelligent, and delightfully acerbic, Adderson is one of the most talented writers in Canada right now, and this is her finest novel to date.