In December 1967, Pierre Trudeau, who was then minister of justice, uttered a simple proposition that immediately became famous: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” By the time he said it, in the course of announcing the proposed decriminalization of homosexuality as part of sweeping changes to the country’s Criminal Code, awareness if not necessarily acceptance of gay sexuality had already been galvanized by the publication of Scott Symons’s Place d’Armes at the beginning of the same year. Canada’s first openly gay novel, Place d’Armes is a scathing, ribald, textual palimpsest of narrative, diary and field guide in which the (nominally heterosexual) protagonist’s homosexual explorations are meant as a metaphor for English Canada’s need to connect with its French partner in Confederation.
At the time of the book’s publication, critics were not kind to Symons. In a review titled “A Monster from Toronto,” Robert Fulford called Symons’s protagonist “the most repellent single figure in the recent history of Canadian writing.” Despite this inauspicious beginning, however, Place d’Armes won the Beta Sigma Phi Best First Canadian Award, then a major literary prize, and as Charles Taylor reported in a fascinating essay on Symons included in Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, became an influential model for subsequent Canadian writing. In the spring of 1969, Trudeau’s legislation became law.
Although sexual equality in Canada progressed slowly from then on—homophobia persisted nearly unchecked through the gay-bashing, bathhouse raid–filled, AIDS crisis–dominated decades that followed, marriage equality was entrenched nationally only in 2005, and a federal law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of gender identity and expression was still winding its way through the House of Commons at the end of 2016—half a century later, queer fiction has become part of the country’s literary mainstream.
Two new novels are products of this long transition. The first, Graham Jackson’s The Jane Loop, is a gay coming-of-age story set in suburban Toronto in 1962. Jackson is an analytical psychologist and the author of two non-fiction books on male intimacy from a Jungian perspective: The Secret Lore of Gardening and The Living Room Mysteries. Alice Zorn’s Five Roses is her second novel (the first was Arrhythmia in 2011), a contemporary story about people who meet in Montreal’s working class Pointe St. Charles neighbourhood at a time when gentrification is beginning to alter its gritty streets. In Jackson’s novel, a young gay man’s struggles to come to terms with his sexuality form the central narrative; in Zorn’s, sexual orientation is presented as only one of numerous identities—among them culture, class, language, professional—her protagonists wrestle with. Both novels show a striking engagement with place. Negotiations of sexual and other identities occur in rapidly shifting urban landscapes in ways that underscore the complexity of social change.
Neil Bennett, the 16-year-old protagonist of The Jane Loop, lives in a suburban post-war community just west of Toronto. Neil’s neighbourhood seems drawn straight from the set of a mid-century sit-com, right down to its “arid grid of streets lined with lookalike houses” and the “formidable expansiveness” of his father’s “perfectly mowed lawn.” Neil’s family seems composed of suburban clichés, too: his incipient-alcoholic father; his distant, emotionally suppressed mother; and an older sister who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is summarily shipped off to live with relatives. Neil also seems to come from central casting: the good son with an unspeakable secret, he papers his basement bedroom with glossy prints of Audrey Hepburn and postcards of muscular men, and has a propensity for playing the soundtracks from popular musicals on his phonograph.
Beneath the “sphinx-like mystery” of Neil’s neighbourhood are real dangers, however. His father is known for pranks ranging from the Pollock-inspired paintings he foists upon the neighbours to faking his own death. At one point, he brings home a stolen tombstone with the same initials as his son’s, a “memento mori” he installs in the hallway outside Neil’s bedroom. Someone has been breaking into nearby houses and trashing them, leaving Neil’s family fearful they may be hit next. Finally, Neil’s sexual orientation leaves him vulnerable to gay bashing, and indeed, one evening after he gets off the bus, a car pulls up alongside, its driver issuing taunts before getting out, knocking him down and pulling his belt open before a neighbour intervenes. The terror of discovery and its consequences—violence, expulsion or both—have made Neil guarded and secretive.
The place of promise in Neil’s life is the Jane Loop of the novel’s title: a streetcar terminus at the corner of Bloor and Jane streets, the “doorway to real life” marking the boundary between suburb and city and, ostensibly, serving as the fulcrum in Neil’s life. On the city side are Neil’s job as a page at the nearby Runnymede Library (and all the exposure to ideas and culture it supplies); his homo-erotic friendship with Tony, a more-or-less straight boy who works at Parma Fruits and Vegetables on Bloor; and a number of charged encounters with men who seem invariably to identify the closeted young Neil as a fellow “Friend of Dorothy.” On the suburban side is Neil’s closeted and therefore somewhat claustrophobic life with his parents.
As a fictional device, however, the Jane Loop seems underdeveloped, marking a major weakness in the novel. At one point, Neil’s friend Tony, a talented artist, shows him sketches of the streetcars and buses they both love entering and exiting the Jane Loop, but their significance—joining? parting? both?—is never fully explored. Even as an imaginative line distinguishing the halves of Neil’s life, the Jane Loop seems to come up short, especially given that the most critical encounters of the novel—with the gay-basher who subsequently becomes a lover, the break-ins that eventually reach Neil’s own doorstep, the increasingly strange behaviour of his father—occur on the suburban side. These encounters, too, deserve more development: we never learn, for example, what drives Neil’s father to his pranks; similarly, the motives behind the break-ins are never established satisfactorily. Still, Jackson’s mannered depiction of early 1960s Etobicoke is deft, and his characterization of Neil’s sexual awakening is sensitive and eloquently expressed.
As a gay coming-of-age novel set in the era before homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, The Jane Loop fills an interesting niche. It is not alone in this category, however: in addition to Scott Symons’s Place d’Armes are Edward Lacey’s Forms of Loss, considered the first book of openly gay poetry published in Canada, and John Grube’s short story “Geoffrey” (in I’m Supposed to Be Crazy and Other Stories), which describes gay encounters in 1958 Toronto. Together, these works offer insight into the lives of gay men in an overlooked era.
Alice Zorn’s Five Roses begins, startlingly, at a Pointe St. Charles rooming house from which a woman abducts a baby whose distracted, drugged-up mother cannot manage to care for her. Two decades later, that abducted baby, now a young woman named Rose, moves to Montreal from a remote Quebec cabin, takes a job as a hospital orderly and begins hesitantly to acclimatize to the strangeness of an urban life she has no reason to recall, and people she believes she has no reason or wish to understand.
The Pointe, “the original, working-class heart” of Montreal, is dominated by a giant sign reading FARINE FIVE ROSES that juts above an industrial building on its derelict waterfront. Unbeknownst to Rose, this sign is the source of her name; like the Pointe itself, it casts a long shadow over the secret origin of her existence. And before long, the Pointe draws Rose in when a work colleague, Kenny, finds her studio space in a warehouse loft large enough to accommodate the loom she wishes to retrieve from the cabin she has left behind. At first Rose finds the district jarring, with its “old brick buildings. Silos tattooed with graffiti. Banks of grass and trees hemmed in by asphalt.” Later, however, it becomes familiar, even homey:
When Kenny had first pointed them out, she’d seen only the decrepit shells of empty buildings, but slowly the urban metamorphosis of reclaimed and deserted buildings was growing familiar. She’d begun to pick out details—the gears and pulleys atop a shaft where bales or sacks must once have slid to a loading dock. The ten-storey zigzag of a rusted metal stairway against a brick wall … She frowned, remembering her ignorance when Kenny had first brought her here. He’d talked and talked, but she hadn’t understood how his stories from the past explained the present.
The people she encounters in the Pointe—Kenny; her roommate, Yushi; Yushi’s new business partner, Maddy; a homeless man named Leo who lives in a former watchman’s shed atop a rusted-out tower—become far more than tour guides: they also help her navigate shifts in the social and sexual landscapes around her. Socially isolated, and having been abused by a backwoods neighbour as a child, Rose has no idea how to handle relationships. Rose approaches Kenny sexually and, when he rebuffs her, is sad and puzzled. When Leo asks if she is sad about a boyfriend, Rose answers, “He never kissed me. He never even tried,” and thinks, “He wasn’t interested in sex.” Later, Leo observes, “I don’t think he’s interested in girls” and she mulls over that possibility, too: “Rose considered what she knew of Kenny. How happy he always sounded about seeing Jerome. And did Jerome … like Kenny, too? There was a new thought.”
For Rose, friendship is a fragile, risky thing. She thinks of her life at the cabin: “She’s watched animals in the woods—rabbits and deer—freeze with their snouts lifted, smelling a stranger. Friend or foe? But how did people know? How did they decide?” Still, Leo helps Rose decide that Kenny can still be a friend, and in turn Rose creates a safe space for Kenny’s relationship with Jerome, telling him he is welcome to stay at the cabin without her there. Similarly, when Rose’s roommate Yushi moves in with Maddy to start a pastry business, Maddy tells Rose, “You can always come visit Yushi at my house. I won’t always be there. You can come see Yushi when I’m not home.” Leo and Rose make space for one another, too: when Leo agrees to move in with Rose provided their apartment is near enough to his watchman’s tower that he can still sometimes retreat there to sleep, he adds, “You can come, too,” to this aerie perched high above the Pointe. In the end, the people Rose meets in the Pointe come to embody the stories her mother once told her at the cabin, about a little girl whose friends, the five roses, would teach her marvellous things.
In spare yet evocative prose, Five Roses weaves together a tender narrative about the fragility and beauty of the kinds of friendship people may share even in the face of trauma. The hard edges of the Pointe—its polluted canal, crumbling factories, the Farine Five Roses sign—come to seem almost like shelter for the soft, vulnerable lives playing out in its midst. A gentle, beautiful book, Five Roses shows how unexpected spaces may make room for reconnection, even love.