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Review: The Sky is Falling, by Caroline Adderson

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.

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.

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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.

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 was recently published.

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