The unnamed narrator of Trevor Clark’s new novel is a white male in his thirties, adrift in Toronto. A professional photographer, he is separated from his wife and living apart from his young daughter. As the novel opens, the narrator is the only passenger on a Scarborough bus in the early hours of a morning in 1992. The bus gets pulled over by police, who are investigating a series of brutal rapes. They question the lone passenger about his recent whereabouts before allowing him to continue his journey.
The early 1990s was the period before Paul Bernardo was identified as the Scarborough Rapist, and the novel’s beginning is a haunting reminder of the crimes. It also sets the novel’s paranoid tone, which is fraught with racial and sexual discomfort. The story follows the narrator as he drinks in bars with long-standing acquaintances, hooks up with women, works at a portrait studio in a mall, and visits his daughter.
The narrator downplays conflicts with friends, his employer, and his ex-wife, while his discomfort with racial minorities is amplified to the point that it becomes his defining feature. His racist impulses are challenged when he meets a beautiful, sexually powerful black woman who introduces him to the city’s non-white bourgeoisie. The strength of the novel lies in the fact that Clark portrays this coupling credibly and does not provide pat refutations of the narrator’s less savoury traits. By the novel’s conclusion, the narrator has confronted some of his prejudices but remains stubbornly committed to others.
Told in clear, understated prose, Love on the Killing Floor is a rare, sharp work of social realism, providing a vivid portrait of Toronto at a precise moment in time. The novel’s frank exploration of race in contemporary Canada will leave many uncomfortable.