A drunken, shouting woman is evicted one night from a Toronto rooming house; two weeks later her bruised body washes up at Sunnyside Beach. Meagre evidence suggests suicide; quickly the case is closed. Another transient lost to the street; one more death to be added to the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee's homeless death list.
Who will remember Maryanne? In well-known Toronto writer and mental health care advocate Pat Capponi's new novel, Last Stop Sunnyside (Harper Collins, 2006), Maryanne's friends collaborate to solve the mystery of her death and locate another missing woman. But Maryanne's friends are a motley lot: a recovering rape victim, a psychiatric out-patient, a transient with an anger management problem, an elderly woman impoverished after gambling her savings away, and an agoraphobic medical school drop-out occupying another derelict Parkdale rooming house. Last Stop Sunnyside is not your conventional detective novel, but it reveals facets of Toronto too often overlooked, stepped over swiftly like a strung-out street kid holding out a cup at the corner of College and Spadina.
Pat Capponi is best known for her memoir Upstairs in the Crazy House (Viking, 1992) and four other books chronicling the lives of the marginalized poor and mentally ill. Last Stop Sunnyside integrates their essence into a moving and richly developed narrative of solidarity and courage in the face of deprivation, violence, and marginality. Capponi does not gloss over her characters' struggles with booze, drugs, bureaucrats, or their own inner demons. Instead, she invites her readers to empathize with their grief, their perseverence, their loneliness, and their hope. As the elderly and dignified Miss Semple comments, "I'm not crazy, you know. I spent a few years on the streets, and maybe I was yelling, but I was never crazy. I was just confused, wondering where everyone had gone, my family, my friends."
Last Stop Sunnyside is remarkable not only as a compelling detective story or for its instructive representations of the lives and struggles of the marginalized poor, but also because of its vivid characterizations of Toronto. Capponi describes Parkdale's uneasy mix of gentrified and derelict streets with a familiar eye; her depictions of Harbourfront, the Queen Streetcar, rapacious landlords, well-intentioned cops, the little theatre crowd, drop-in centres, and the haunted men and women who populate the city's streets are glitteringly astute. These eloquent depictions carry the novel far beyond the narrative frame of a straight-forward mystery novel and set Capponi apart even from other luminary Toronto mystery writers such as Maureen Jennings (Vices of My Blood; Let Loose the Dogs), Rosemary Aubert (Red Mass; Leave Me By Dying), and Eric Wright (The Last Hand; The Night the Gods Smiled). As a first-time novelist, Capponi's gift lies in her ability to knowledgeably and movingly depict the lives of Toronto's urban underclass. If some passages in the novel are painful to read because of their graphic descriptions of violence or destitution, this pain is mild compared to the anguish of being abandoned and forgotten. As Ed, Dana's friendly cop comments,
You know what I find even harder? People whose deaths don't disturb anyone. When we can't find a single person to mourn or remember or even identify a deceased. It makes me wonder about life, the kind of life that doesn't touch even one individual. You cared, your friends cared about her. That says a lot about her, and about you.Last Stop Sunnyside is reportedly the first installment of the Dana Leoni mystery series; Pat Capponi is currently at work on a sequel. In the meantime, Last Stop Sunnyside joins a small and varied collection of other works exploring poverty and homelessness in Toronto, including Shaunessy Bishop-Stall's Down to This (2004), Richard Scrimger's Crosstown (1996), Basil Papadimos' The Hook of It Is (1989), and Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown (1969).
This review was originally published at Reading Toronto.