Review: Watching Traffic by Jane Ozkowski
Source: ARC of Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press. Thank you!
Expected publication: August 1, 2016 by Groundwood Books
Emily has finally finished high school in the small town where she has lived her whole life. At last, she thinks, her adult life can begin.
But what if you have no idea what you want your new life to look like? What then?
While Lincoln gets ready to go backpacking in Australia, Melissa packs for university on the east coast, and a new guy named Tyler provides welcome distraction, Emily wonders whether she will end up working forever at Pamela’s Country Catering, cutting the crusts off party sandwiches and stuffing mushrooms. Is this her future? Being known forever as the local girl whose mother abandoned her in the worst way possible all those years ago? Visiting her spacey grandmother, watching nature shows on TV with her dad and hanging out with Robert the grocery clerk? Listening to the distant hum of the highway leading out of the town everyone can’t wait to leave?
With poetic prose and a keen eye for the quirks and ironies of small-town life, Jane Ozkowski captures the bittersweet uncertainty of that weird, unreal summer after high school — a time that is full of possibility and completely terrifying at the same time.
At just under two hundred pages, I am tempted to call Jane Ozkowski’s young adult debut a true gem of a book. However, I feel that ‘gem’ might not be a potent enough word for the unexpected beauty and depth of this book. Watching Traffic is a solid entry into the world of coming-of-age, contemporary YA and an introduction to a great voice in Canadian literature.
Recent high school graduate Emily is our narrator in this story, and through her sometimes meandering, sometimes blunt, peculiar yet strangely comforting first-person narrative, we are taken on a maelstrom of experiences. From the possible disintegration of her longest standing friendship, to coming to terms with her other best friend leaving town and country, to worrying about her forgetful and hoarding grandma, Emily has a multitude of problems presenting themselves. Entwined in Emily’s attempt to confront (or avoid) these issues, is Emily’s albatross: the reason why Emily lives the life she is in, is known in town, pitied, patted and petted like a fragile yet unknowable pet, who may go off, unhinged, at any moment.
In the early pages of the story, we learn that Emily’s mom committed suicide when Emily was just a few years old. The suicide is one factor, but it is the grisly public details of the tragedy which have accounted for her somewhat notorious status in her small town. At a time when the friends closest to her are attempting to break free of their town and its sameness, Emily wonders if her mother’s brief yet memorable history will limit or define her. While Ozkowski here applies an oft-used YA convention of a stalled and uncertain girl meeting a new boy to challenge said girl, the author goes against most all convention when navigating their relationship. For example, when Emily begins spending more time with Tyler, her complex situations with her best friends (and grandma) are not ignored or forgotten- nor does Emily herself magically transform. Ozkowski also tackles well-tread themes of small-town quirks, feelings of post-grad hopelessness and wanting to break free, but again, by strength of writing and detail, the author makes it feel new. Unmined. All in all, the seamless nature and pure quality of Ozkowski’s writing, in tandem with the story’s core uncompromising nature, wonderful oddness, and great characters is what makes this story stand out.
Overall, Watching Traffic is a literary young adult novel that I highly recommend. Any readers interesting in searching for more Canadian lit; finely-tuned, beautifully and intriguingly written YA; something that can make you laugh, pause and ache all in a short space of page- this could be just the right read for you. Readers who enjoy the work of authors such as Miriam Toews, Lisa Moore, Susin Nielsen or A.S. King might especially love reading Ozkowski’s splendid debut.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.