Review: From hell and back: Searching for self at the crossroads of social change

Struggling to find identity, love and redemption in gritty 1970s Toronto

| May 9, 2013
Review: From hell and back: Searching for self at the crossroads of social change

Night Town

by Cathi Bond
(Iguana Books,
2013;
$23.99)

One marvels at how far we've progressed and yet how little has changed. In the 1970s in Canada there was still a profound stigma attached to homosexuality. Sound familiar?

We certainly like to think of ourselves as progressive in Canada, but one merely needs to glance at the headlines to see we are a long way off. Who hasn't read a story of a teenager committing suicide because they are bullied about their sexual orientation?

Although it was decriminalized in 1967, homosexuality continued to be considered a perversion by many, retaining its status as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association for another six years. Cathi Bond’s debut novel Night Town takes place at this crossroad between the burgeoning underground gay revolution in progressive downtown Toronto and the conservative social backdrop that still prevailed in the 1970s.

The story introduces Maddy Barnes, who has a sheltered childhood in a remote southwestern Ontario village, where she struggles at an early age to define her place in her family and in the world. Always drawn to the male-dominated activities of her younger brothers and fascinated by her father's medical practice, Maddy's proclivities clash early on with the traditional female roles of the day. What are seemingly innocent interests are perceived as red flags to those around her and warp Maddy's sense of self.

Bond navigates her protagonist's journey with an honesty and vulnerability that would resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to be accepted within the narrow confines of their society. Maddy follows her impulses like any child: gauging the reactions of others and allowing those reactions to inform her beliefs and understanding of the world.

In an early scene, an impulsive kiss on the lips of her mother -- to Maddy an earnest expression of her affection -- emits a negative reaction that leaves her confused and crestfallen. To her dismay, Maddy continually comes up against this dilemma: her impulses never seem to fully align with the accepted norm and yet to reject them would be to deny the woman she is becoming. 

After a tragic personal loss, Maddy finds herself turning to drugs to cope, alienating her further and eventually leading her to the gritty streets of downtown Toronto. This is where the story truly takes a turn. The start of the book is clearly a coming-of-age tale, but once we are introduced to the Toronto underworld, the real consequences of Maddy's rejection are revealed. She immediately connects with other outsiders like herself and forms a new makeshift support system. The picture that Bond paints of this dark underbelly of Toronto is one rarely discussed: populated by rejected youth who seek solace and sustenance in sex or drugs or both.

As a reader, it is impossible not to feel invested in Maddy's future. Her decisions are at once frustrating and completely relatable. Few escape their teens without exposure to a sadder side of humanity, which is decidedly different than the one most parents want for their children.

Night Town is a harrowing and heartbreaking tale of a young woman struggling to come to terms with the birth of her sexuality in a deeply repressive society. At its heart, this is an outsider's tale, echoing the struggles of teenage alienation. Yet, it is also the defiant story of a young woman who is gay and forced to exist on the fringes of society -- a punishment still suffered by many to this day.

Beautiful, timely, heart wrenching: as the cover reads, "sometimes there's no explaining the unspeakable things we do for love."

Kathleen Yamazaki is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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