Leung's stories lift the veiled curtain of late 1970s suburbia to reveal the sadness and isolation of its residents.
In the opening story of Leung's linked collection, 11-year-old June Lee frets over a disturbing trend: The parents in her suburban neighborhood of Toronto are committing suicide at an alarming rate. "Regardless of which group we belonged to—Chinese, white, or otherwise—by the second suicide, it felt like we were waiting for something else catastrophic to happen," recalls June. Her stories, all told in the first person, illuminate the subtle boundaries between girlhood and adolescence and serve to anchor the collection. Radiating outward from June's perspective are those of other women and children in the neighborhood. There's Marilyn, an impulsive middle-aged thief of discarded or forgotten items; Josie, June's best friend, who must work to support her family and who quietly keeps an assault to herself; Darren, a young black boy who experiences violent racism at the hands of a teacher; and June's elderly grandmother Poh Poh, who emigrated from Hong Kong and is leery of her granddaughter and her loud Canadian friends. Leung looks for ways to bridge the gaps between what characters say and what they mean, what they admit to themselves and what they won't utter aloud, ultimately painting a picture of deep social and racial divides. (When one white, wealthy neighbor observes that Toronto's poorer Italian neighborhood is "authentic," for instance, it feels a little on-the-nose.) Many of her neighborhood residents have left poverty behind in the city for a better life and a bigger lawn only to struggle with feelings of discontentment and shame about their social standing. The men and women who commit suicide suffer from isolation or mental illness, and Leung uses these tragedies to show the fragility of adulthood. Most heartbreaking, though, are the stories that address the fear and shame children internalize when they encounter racial and gendered violence. Darren is struck by a teacher in class despite repeated warnings from his mother to keep his eyes down around white people, and June's friend Nav is beaten for acting too feminine at school. "I didn't know what to do," June cries to Poh Poh, a familiar refrain throughout the collection. None of the adults in her life offer easy answers or solutions—the best they can do is provide comfort and a soft place to land until trouble moves on to the next family.
Written in the tradition of Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, Leung's debut story collection marks the career of a writer to watch.