Canadian author Anthony De Sa's previous book, Barnacle Love is a collection of linked short stories about a Portuguese immigrant family. One of the stories, 'Shoeshine Boy' has been expanded in Kicking The Sky, his first full length novel.
Set in Toronto in 1977 the real life disappearance of shoeshine boy, Emanuel Jacques is the catalyst for the events in this book. Four days after his disappearance his body was discovered, he'd been viciously raped before being murdered. This then is the brutal backdrop for a gritty coming of age story about twelve year old Canadian-Portuguese boy Antonio Rebelo. We see the city through the eyes of the adolescent, the narrow alleys are their hiding places, full of danger and excitement. Antonio and his friends jump across rooftops searching for adventure - their initial reaction following the shoeshine boy's disappearance is to make a plan to find him, believing they will have more luck than the police. Then Emanuel's body is discovered and Antonio, already on the brink of manhood is thrust him into a world where innocence is shattered, parents are terrified, people, particularly the Portuguese immigrants from the Azores want revenge and the homosexual community is a target. The violence and darker side of life in this book is uncompromising, wives are beaten by husbands, there are predatory mothers and boys give blow jobs through a fence for money.
Antonio himself is a likeable yet complex character, he is often terrified or sickened by events yet is unable to resist the draw of the adult world of secrets, lies and fear. He is confused too about his own sexuality, at first drawn to a girl in the neighbourhood but later becomes aware of his attraction to the mysterious James, at a time when homophobia had become rife this only adds to the boy's turmoil. Amongst this though there is humour and love; the bond between friends, the parents that desperately want to protect their children, not ready to accept they are growing up and see and hear what adults think they have concealed.
In many ways this isn't an easy book to read, it is raw and shocking. Yet by evoking so accurately the fear, confusion and anger both of a young boy and of the wider community De Sa has written a book that is powerful and honest. I thoroughly recommend it.
Disclosure: I received my copy of Kicking The Sky free from Netgalley in return for my honest review.
Kicking The Sky will be published in the UK on 25th March 2014 by Algonquin.