YA novels are known for parsing familiar, relevant themes of bullying, mental health, and the exasperating social strata of adolescence. Toronto writer Jane Ozkowski’s debut, Watching Traffic, sets itself apart by concentrating on the tension and uncertainty found in the liminal space between high-school graduation and the precipice of adulthood.
Ozkowski worked at a motorcycle driving school before making her foray into writing, so it seems fitting that the story, as the title suggests, touches on concepts of forward momentum and travel, with a local highway making numerous appearances in the text as both a source of hope and disillusion.
Emily has lived in Cavanaugh – a small everytown nestled, unseen and unremarkable, north of Toronto – for her entire life, and bears witness to the compulsion of local youth to move away at the first opportunity. One would think Emily would follow suit, given her history as Cavanaugh’s “suicide baby,” a nickname bestowed at the age of three when she was discovered in a motel room beside her mother’s lifeless body. Though she is relatively unfazed by the tragedy, it serves to distinguish her to the rest of the town as someone to be either pitied or feared. In a way, however, it is Emily’s backstory that ties her to her hometown.
As those around Emily – including her best friend, Melissa, who is moving to the East Coast for university, and Lincoln, who is setting out on an adventure in Australia – prepare for their first steps into the world beyond the safe, quaint childhood Cavanaugh has provided them, Emily hits a hard wall of inertia that leaves her feeling as if her life and plans (or lack thereof) are painfully boring and inadequate. Her peers spend the summer anticipating their escapes, while Emily suppresses panic over her own aimlessness as she trudges through monotonous shifts in the dungeon-like basement of Pamela’s Country Catering and visits to her quirky grandmother’s home of perpetual, nostalgic disarray.
Though the story is simple and free of big action, it adequately captures Emily’s sense of anxiety – and, oddly, at times, comfort – over her lack of progression as others define it. Ozkowski’s language is rich with simile and metaphor, as when Emily depicts her grandmother’s rented house “with nothing in it but the sound of the highway … like it was wrapped in plastic with the air sucked out,” a space bearing wallpaper of “Braille … to tell all the things I can’t.”
But, while the author has a definite knack for metaphor and unique description, she repeats the same concepts and images, as when she clumsily introduces the titular highway that “slices Cavanaugh in two” and “cuts the town in two” twice within two pages, each as if for the first time. And though the modest length and depth of the story is fitting for a younger audience, the reader senses that Emily could (and likely would) ruminate more upon her suicidal mother and their relationship than Ozkowski allows her.
Still, Watching Traffic is a satisfying, comfortable debut from a writer who has the creative and stylistic chops to impress, and will likely do so with her forthcoming adult novel.