Claremont by Wiebke von Carolsfeld

One of the welcome surprises I get from time to time is reading a work of fiction set in a location near where I used to live. Claremont by Wiebke von Carolsfeld (2019, Linda Leith Publishing) is set not only in Toronto but in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood where I lived for about a year back in the late 1980s. We rented a house on Massey Street (technically in neighbouring West Queen), just a stone’s throw (OK, a 9-minute walk!) to 46 Claremont St. (see map).

My old neighbourhood.

Of course, I didn’t realize this when I started reading Claremont. Given that Linda Leith Publishing is based in Montreal, as is Ms. von Carolsfeld, I assumed “Claremont” was either a Montreal neighbourhood or, possibly, a person’s name. The book doesn’t start out on Claremont St. either. It begins on the northern border of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) in a house where a murder-suicide has just taken place, leaving their only child Tom an orphan. It has also left him mute, unwilling to speak after seeing his bludgeoned mother die before his eyes. It was his mother’s prescient wish that her sister Sonya would be Tom’s legal guardian should anything happen to her. When Sonya agreed to this, she never envisioned it actually happening. Now she is saddled with a withdrawn mute boy who barely eats, has nightmares and wets the bed. Sonya also has had difficulties with carrying a child to term, multiple times. Her younger sister Rose, who lives on Claremont, is a single mother of a teen boy, Nick and works in the local library. The house belonged to their deceased parents, who were Ukranian immigrants. Inexplicably, Tom seems to prefer the company of Rose, Nick and Will. And living at 46 Claremont. Sonya considers the fact that Tom prefers Rose to her.

Sonya muted the TV. What if Tom really was better off with Rose? It wouldn’t be the first time that Claremont had turned out to be a safe haven. Her own parents had found refuge there after a long journey that took them from rural Ukraine through Eastern Europe, a yearlong stint in Essen, Germany, and finally to downtown Toronto. They had loved that crooked house, despite its creaky stairs, draughty windows and a basement full of paint cans dating back to the 1930s. It was the first home they had ever owned, and the one Tato [their father] had refused to sell. A good investment, he rightfully claimed. But Sonya suspected that he kept it because it was a door to the past, a reminder of a time…… when their future still felt open and bright.

Tom still doesn’t talk, but he lives each day with much more sensory input than he would have in Sonya’s sterile home in the suburbs populated by “people with names everyone could pronounce, who had no accents, no shared stories of survival.” Sometimes the experiences are not always good, but that’s part of life in 46 Claremont. Perhaps Tom identifies with the three somewhat immature adults more so than with the more adult Alex and Sonya. Or it could be the lack of a father figure that suits Tom just fine. At any rate, Tom thrives amidst all the chaotic comings and goings in the inner city. And of his two very different Aunts. Claremont is not all about Tom, but Tom is the catalyst that, without speaking a word, draws together this family living at the antipodes of the City of Toronto.

46 Claremont St. in Toronto

I liked Claremont primarily for Ms. von Carolsfeld’s depiction of a family with real issues (even before Tom was orphaned in the murder-suicide). Sonya, Rose and Will must deal with their sister’s death (Russell, Mona’s husband was a friend of Will’s. He introduced them.) and at the same time deal with their young nephew with psychological and emotional issues. Ms. von Carolsfeld is adept at getting inside Tom’s head too, so we are privy to Tom’s perception of the world and the people who make up his new family. Then there is Ray, the stoic Children’s Aid counsellor who feels his professional detachment start to slip as he gets more involved with Tom and Rose as the days go on. Ray gives us an alternate lens with which to view life at 46 Claremont through.

A very convincing and a very gratifying read. Family, trust, failures and regrets, and underneath it all, a young boy who was spared being part of a family murder-suicide. A laudable first book. I am adding it to the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best First Book (Fiction).

Claremont by Wiebke von Carolsfeld
Linda Leith Publishing

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