Friday, 26 April 2013

Been Reading: Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski

As I contemplate a submission for Canada Writes' uber-fun hyperlocal writing contest  it seems nothing makes more fitting reading that Andrew J. Borkowski's collection Copernicus Avenue.

Set largely in a barely fictionalized Roncesvalles village around the middle of the last century, this collection reads like a detailed journal of a very specific time and place. The runaway seeking adventure in High Park. The men in cafes spiking their coffee with vodka and their English with Polish. The babysitter regaling the neighbourhood kids with not-quite-appropriate stories about her life during the war. The failing mill worker trying to recreate an Old World power structure by training a scrappy little dog into the perfect hunting companion.

All Borkowski's characters are haunted by the spectre of past lives, lives outside of Toronto, or, in the cast of children, by the effect their parents' past lives have had on them. Many of them might be considered foreign to me (my browser history is currently filled with more Polish terms than I have personally ever seen in one place before). And yet, the detail with with Borkowski paints the neighbourhood in which they live gives me the distinct feeling that I understand them. The way each character sees, describes, interacts with Copernicus (nee Roncesvalles) Avenue informs that character. It gives his/her another layer, a layer that I wonder if all readers get to see.

I wonder whether readers of this collection who don't live in Toronto, and therefore don't bring their own subjective understanding of the neighbourhood with them, would feel as strongly about the setting of these stories being so pivotal character development. There's a unique creative dance that your brain has to do when it envisions fictional characters moving within, and commenting on, a landscape that you yourself can so clearly see in your mind's eye (let alone with your actual eyes after a streetcar ride). Even Borkowski's description of the architecture, buildings that I myself have seen many times, surprised me. Each character was seeing that I've seen, and yet in a completely different way.

Reading this collection has shown me the unique, delicious pleasure that comes from reading about places I'm familiar with. I like being in the know, in the club of readers who get to understand what a particular character's reaction to this church's facade or that movie theatre marquee might say about him. It's given me a renewed appreciation for writing about the here and now in a very literal sense. Long live local lit!