South African–born Danila Botha’s debut novel tells the extraordinary story of four individuals whose lives intersect in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. The narrative, which is constructed in alternating first-person voices, reveals a deep understanding of human nature. “What I’ve learned is, what people want is to tell someone, anyone, their problems.” These words belong to Nicki, one of Botha’s protagonists, and they disclose the very essence of the novel.
Everyone in this story has a past they are trying desperately to hide. Toronto, with its crowded streets and effervescent diversity, offers Botha’s lost souls refuge. Nicki, who has travelled to Toronto from Israel, meets Lukas, a young man escaping the secrets he has left behind in Nova Scotia. The two enter into a relationship, despite their obvious incompatibility and Lukas’s reluctance to divulge the source of his very palpable anger. Nicki’s own traumatic past in Israel, living under constant threat in a country “always at war with itself,” disinclines her from asking hard questions of Lukas.
Dez, meanwhile, moves to Toronto from Brazil and is instantly enamored by the stew of culture and women surrounding him: “I’m overcome all the time with the desire to explore, to see, to understand.” When Marlize walks into his Queen Street West bar looking for a job, Dez immediately knows she is unlike the many women he has slept with. She is Afrikaans from Cape Town; her trauma is heartbreaking, but the wounds won’t heal because she silences her pain. All she wants is to feel free from danger – maybe then she can be happy.
The word “love” is littered throughout the novel: characters express love for inanimate things, they say “I love you” to each other but don’t always mean it. But what is love? Nicki tells Dez that she adores being in love, and he responds: “I hate all the worry about what someone else is feeling, this crippling insecurity, this tightness in my chest.” By the novel’s end, however, the reader knows that love is not to be feared. In fact, Botha makes clear it is the only thing that can save these characters.