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.
“When you think back to the school year 1983-84, what do you remember two decades later? Who were your friends? What were your obsessions? Where did they lead you? How did they shape the rest of your life – so far? For Jane Z. and her housemates on one of the numbered streets within 15 minutes walking distance of the campus of the University of British Columbia, that year becomes the hottest spot in the Cold War in ways that put unexpected spins on their bad imaginings.
Caroline Adderson's The Sky is Falling is both a return to Jane Z.'s sophomore year of living dangerously as a member of NAG, a non-violent, anti-nuclear direct action group and Jane's later reflections on the ways the paranoia and terror of that time have marginalized the lives of those dearest to her, then and now.
The Sky is Falling, by Caroline Adderson, Thomas Allen, 310 pages, $32.95
If you're in the habit of reading Chekhov, Jane Z. is a narrator you want to meet, with stories you really want to read. When you open the first page of The Sky is Falling, it's 2004 and spring is right outside Jane's window, filling its frame with snow-white magnolia blossoms. and she's thinking of The Cherry Orchard and how she and her UBC housemates once read it out aloud on their front porch while they “swilled plonk.” And she thinks about “how Pascal betrayed my friend Sonia and she him in turn,” and her own part in “that bad, bad decision that we took” that has placed Sonia's picture on the front page of that morning's Vancouver Sun, alongside a story about her release from prison after serving 20 years for a terrorist attack. They had wanted to rid the world of all bombs and they had set off one of their own.
In autumn, 1983, Jane rents a room in a house she is to share with Sonia, Pascal, Pete and Dieter, and is drawn into NAG not out of idealism but because her first year at UBC was spent commuting 90 minutes and three buses each way between her aunt's house in a suburb east of Vancouver and the university. She's a scholarship winner from Edmonton who feels she's in danger of becoming her aunt, “lonely and eccentric and obsessively cheap.” At UBC, she's studying the history of the Soviet Union, learning Russian and reading “Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn” in the minuscule department of Slavonic studies. Jane is nowhere near as plain, boring, sad, uninteresting, dull, monotonous, pathetic and apathetic, empty, depressed, mournful or despondent as the characters in Chekhov she identifies with, but she is dissatisfied.
Jane wants to be as entertaining and insightful in person as she is in the papers she writes for Professor Kopanyev. Her housemates are less interested in helping her discover who she might actually be than in rallying her to their causes: Pete is an anarcho-feminist-pacifist philandering refugee from a Toronto Establishment family; Dieter is a Marxist from Esterhazy, Sask.; Sonia is an eating-disordered neurasthenic from 100 Mile House, B.C., who is trying to alert the world, one person at a time, to impending nuclear catastrophe; and Pascal is a runaway kid who will do anything asked of him to keep from being returned home to his parents before losing his virginity.
With Pete, Dieter and Sonia leading the way, Jane and Pascal are brought up to speed on world, campus and in-house politics: the Doomsday Clock is set at two minutes to midnight; Ronald Reagan's joint chiefs of staff are predicting nuclear war within six months; the new NFB film If You Love This Planet documents physician Helen Caldicott's research into levels of radiation in the food chain after Three Mile Island; the Squamish Five, a local terrorist group, is about to go on trial; on-campus protest groups are factionalizing; Belinda, Pete's main squeeze, has joined a radical feminist commune; and NAG embarks on harmless pranks that turn into the dirty trick that sends Sonia and Pete to prison.
Caroline Adderson is one of the few major Canadian writers equally adept at short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased to Meet You) and novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice). In both, her writing is swift and accurate, always getting just the right words in just the right order. She's a genius at picking out small details that reveal larger traits in the personalities of her characters as they struggle to free themselves of chronically confused and confusing, anxious and anxiety-inducing behaviour.
Her writing isn't simply deft: Adderson is very, very funny, but her wit is wry, cleverly controlled: The Sky is Falling
is entertaining and insightful in just the way Jane Z., perennial student of Chekhov, wants to be seen and overheard, and it has the most memorable final chapter of anything I've read in years.” (T. F. Rigelhof, Globe and Mail
“Part of Adderson’s gift is an ability to express her characters’ ethos in unexpectedly down-to-earth terms….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. Adderson suggests that fear is always looking for something to attach itself to, but that real danger often comes from the place we least expect….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.” (Emily donaldson, Quill & Quire
“Sometimes the past, no matter how well-buried, intrudes on the present, no matter how well-ordered. In Vancouverite Caroline Adderson’s third novel, the past arrives in Jane Z.’s Vancouver home one spring morning in 2004, with a newspaper headline about the release of a 1980s’ activist….Flashbacks to 1983 and 1984 form the book’s fluttering, fear-filled heart. In clear, clean prose that makes us wonder why all writers aren’t this good, Adderson recreates the Reagan era: American cruise missiles are being tested in Canada; the Soviets have downed a South Korean passenger jet; a nerve-rattling movie (If You Love This Planet), narrated by an Australian doctor, retells the horrors of Hiroshima while predicting how much more terribly we will all die in the coming apocalypse.
…The plot moves along, present alternating with past, as the present-day Jane reconsiders the disaster that did come about, in part because she was not paying proper attention. Adderson spices the narrative with précis of Russian stories, until these kids, these students—naïve, angry, passionate, high-minded—come to resemble the characters she reads about.
…Adderson mines memory-rich student territory: the chores rota no one follows; the vegetarian meals that never quite satisfy; the endless gender issues debates; ditto the political debates; the post-smoking and love-making; the new names; the romantic longing for the 1960s…. In this funny, deeply thoughtful tale, Adderson shows how one woman manages, given enough luck, time, and Chekhov, to balance life’s pleasures with its paranoia.”
(Nancy Wigston, Toronto Star
"Her writing isn't simply deft: Adderson is very, very funny, but her wit is wry, cleverly controlled: The Sky is Falling
is entertaining and insightful...and it has the most memorable final chapter of anything I've read in years." (Globe and Mail
"In this funny, deeply thoughtful tale, Adderson shows how one woman manages, given enough luck, time, and Chekhov, to balance life's pleasures with its paranoia." (Toronto Star