Review by Virginia Baker
The world is shaped by movement. This migration is part of us, and so is the uncertainty. When we move from one place to the next, all we can expect on is uncertainty. This historical struggle of uncertainty is the bedrock of Kicking the Sky. Canadian author Anthony De Sa has been writing this first novel in his head ever since he was a young boy. De Sa was born and raised in Little Portugal, Toronto, the same neighborhood where his novel takes place. The author’s intimate familiarity with the setting allows him to depict it in an authentic and thorough manner, without being heavy-handed. Readers are absorbed into this culture, taught the hierarchy between the immigrants from “mainland Portugal, the continent,” and Azores, one of Portugal’s archipelagoes. The traditions of the Portuguese culture seep into the story and creates an expansive atmosphere that stretches out towards the future while never forgetting the past.
Kicking the Sky is the story of Antonio Rebelo, an adolescent growing up in Little Portugal. Antonio’s story begins in the summer of 1977, in the days following the real-life disappearance of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy. Jaques was the son of immigrants from Azores, the same Portuguese archipelago the author’s family comes from. After days of searching, authorities finally found the body in a dumpster. Traumatic events change our lives. “It seemed like the person I was now was not the person I would’ve been if Emanuel Jaques had not been murdered,” Antonio says. Jaques’ death is the event that catapults Antonio into adulthood and leaves him grappling, trying to understand the world around him. He tries to remain a loyal friend and son he’s always been. But he knows that he’ll “never have the chance to be that boy again.”
During “the summer that no one slept” this tragedy ripples through the entire community. Mothers start locking their doors and closing their windows, more privileged families move out of the city to the suburbs, and Antonio, who’s usually free to ride his bicycle through the city to hang out with his two friends, Manny and Ricky, is kept home by his worried mother. In the aftermath of Jaques’ death, Antonio squirms his way into adulthood, trying to understand the world around him, as the larger neighborhood struggles to regain a sense of safety and belonging. This book becomes a coming-of-age story for both the Antonio and the community.
De Sa is very successful at establishing these supporting characters by balancing physical and personality description. The first time we are introduced to Ricky, one of Antonio’s best friends, Antonio describes him as “much smaller than the rest of us, a runt, like Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web. But unlike Wilbur, Ricky actually did have a special gift. I once saw him pick up a robin that Manny had hit with his slingshot. He cupped the bird’s limp body in his hands and brought it to his lips, whispered something into its head, then threw it in the air where it took flight.” These concrete details quickly construct the characters in this neighborhood, and reveal the way each of them is struggling with their own identity. De Sa weaves together multiple story lines and personal conflicts, building each of these struggles upon one another to create a multi-layered novel that goes beyond the main character.
Antonio’s narration is rich with long scenes, full of character interaction and revelation. Quick-paced, sometimes the movement can accelerate suddenly, without warning, and the reader has to re-read in order to be grounded back into the story and feel confident about what’s going on. In a very dramatic moment where one of the supporting characters Agnes is in a garage, birthing an unfathered child during one of the early winter months, the narration moves very quickly. Antonio jolts out of the garage to retrieve help and he returns after the baby is born, which left a lot of the scene untold, and when Ricky announced that the baby is “not, breathing,” the moment felt incomplete. There are a handful of scenes like this that are fast and needed to slow down to fully unfold the moment. But, at the same time, this quick movement also means that the moments never drag. Instead, Antonio is led through a serpentine story, with a surprising event or revelation at every twist.
Kicking the Sky is a coming-of-age novel for everyone who must confront hardship. The fast-paced narration is constantly revealing new information, building tension and weaving story lines, allowing the reader to witness the growth of this Portuguese community, seen through the eyes of a young adolescent who is keen at dissecting all of its secrets and lies everyone around him is hiding behind. De Sa’s writing keeps the reader flipping pages, constantly guessing, unsure of what’s to come and this sense of anticipation drives the story forward, as we follow Antonio through this transition in the neighborhood.