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Fiction Contemporary Women

And the Walls Came Down

by (author) Denise Da Costa

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2023
Contemporary Women, Urban Life, Coming of Age
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jun 2023
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  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2023
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“A scintillating debut full of nuanced and achingly human characters.” — Zalika Reid-Benta, author of Frying Plantain
Back in the low-income neighbourhood where she was raised, a young woman rediscovers the importance of community, home, and finding one’s voice.

Just before the demolition of her childhood home in east Toronto, Delia Ellis returns to retrieve her beloved diary. Using it as a compass, she rediscovers life as a precocious teen growing up in the nineties.

Delia’s writings reveal her anxieties following a move to Don Mount Court, a Toronto government housing complex, where she struggles to navigate life with an overprotective Jamaican mother and her father’s inept replacement, “Neville the nuisance.” Delia’s troubles compound when she enlists her naive younger sister in a scheme to reunite their parents and recapture the idealistic life she yearns for.

Yet, through the lens of adulthood, Delia’s entries take a wrecking ball to the perception of her parents’ love story she’d long built up in her mind, uncovering a child’s internalization of a failed marriage, poverty, and a mother come undone.

About the author

Denise Da Costa is an author and visual artist. Born in Toronto, she spent her early years in Jamaica. She is a graduate of York University and Seneca College School of Communication Arts, and is an alumni of the Humber Creative Writing program. Her work explores the complications of love and the impact of class, gender, and race on identity. And the Walls Came Down is her first novel. She lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Denise Da Costa's profile page


  • Long-listed, Toronto Book Award

Excerpt: And the Walls Came Down (by (author) Denise Da Costa)

Chapter 1
Going Back
August 2004
Summer heat ushered the foul scent of sewers and exhaust into the streetcar as it shuffled through Toronto traffic. Patrons poured out of the Eaton Centre and onto the sidewalks. Through their scissoring legs, I searched the faces of the drifters installed on the pavement. This was a habit my sister and I picked up after Mother left, convinced she suffered from amnesia and had taken up with a band of homeless persons. This was a town desperate for the taste of a true summer like the one in 1993, when my mother, Aretha Ellis, fled the suburbs to escape the shame of a dream deferred. It occurred to me that she had been running her whole life from one thing or another.
As the vehicle accelerated, I clutched Mother’s old baking tin on my lap, but the force sent me swaying into the next seat, startling the passenger sitting there. I hadn’t noticed him until then — a handsome, stony stranger who recovered in time to grasp my shoulder and steady me. I shrank from his touch.
“Thanks.” I studied him for familiarity, seeing only the sharpness of his protruding brow line and cheekbones — a skull forming in front of me. I thought of my grandmother whose funeral I’d recently attended and looked away.
Farther east, we passed Jilly’s Gentleman’s Club, followed by a series of studio spaces and a commercial loft under construction. Onward, after a kilometre of residential area, we stopped at a brown-bricked, tumbledown complex in Regent Park. The building next to it was recognizable only by its location. The signage no longer read “Community Centre” but, rather, “Community Clinic.” Same difference, my sister would say.
From there, I could trace the path Mother made me walk home one night. I was fourteen and stupid for having let my delinquent older friend, Richa, convince me to attend a dance party at the centre. The elaborate plan was anchored to a lie that placed me at Nicole’s house, working on a school project. If my mother were to call, Nicole was supposed to claim I was in the bathroom. Yet, shortly after my arrival at the event, Nicole made an entrance. I was furious.
“Listen,” Richa said to me. “If you’re gonna get in trouble, it might as well be for something good. She tapped a passerby on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. He shot me a smile. I cringed.
Having acquiesced, I found myself dancing at the back of the gym with the boy when my mother came barrelling through the horde, orbs of light pirouetting across her face. My dancing partner made a hasty exit. I was not as swift. She smacked me hard across the cheek. Nearby partiers let out a shocked cry but quickly returned to minding their own business — Caribbean parents like mine were known to take on bystanders.
Mother grabbed me by the collar of the black crop top I had borrowed from Richa and led me out into the parking lot. Her car sat idling with my sister, Melissa, looking on wide-eyed from the passenger seat. I went to open the door.
“Oh no.” Mother shook her head and pointed to the main road. “The same way you got here is the same way you’re getting home.”
At eleven o’clock, I walked home, more afraid of what awaited me there than anything I might encounter on my journey. I knew that street like the back of my hand: there were one hundred and fourteen cracks in the sidewalk, three driveways, two stoplights, and at least three streetworkers who steadily held the block. Melissa called them “stars” because we never saw them during the day.
In the years since I’d moved away, gentrification had uprooted mainstays and entire communities along Dundas Street but not east of the bridge. East of the bridge there were no banks. No grocery stores. No windowed shops for one to stop and stare at pretty things. If not for the Don River, streetcars would simply detour north onto River Street and avoid the area altogether. I stood, rang the buzzer, then made my way to the exit.
The streetcar stop resembled a giant cigarette piercing the cement and tilting toward the pothole in the hot asphalt — a trap for thin-legged prey. I paused to adjust to the earthy stench and the remains of my old neighbourhood, Don Mount Court. Portions of the complex had been knocked away, and the colour from the surrounding buildings receded as if they were already disappearing. The untrained eye might not have realized it was public housing; it wasn’t a high-rise flanked by brown row houses or a grim set-up of identical step-ups placed like crosses in a graveyard. The towering fortress rose high above the demolition equipment as though freshly unearthed, cracks spreading like spores across its stucco coat.
I followed the construction barrier to the rear of the complex where the carnage of past lives remained, yards of abandoned furniture and skeletal strollers tangled into the overgrown shrubbery. Vines weaved along the chain-link fence probing for the sun, which was busy staring at its reflection in the window of Mother’s old bedroom. I imagined the spectre of a well-dressed woman staring out at the widespread demolition and the emerging skyline beyond. She would’ve found it ironic since the city expropriated the land in the 1960s to build the complex.
I strolled across the deserted courtyard and climbed one flight of steps, where I could look out from the balcony. Unused and abandoned, Don Mount held a semblance of beauty I would miss. In the park, an empty pair of swings swayed rebelliously against their fate, chains clanging, struggling to break free. Trees whispered and shuddered their leaves, the whole area a living organism.
It knows.
The management office, carved into the space between the stairwell and a bachelor apartment, was where tenants paid the rent. Or made promises about when the rent would be paid. Where seniors met before setting off to the “Blue House,” the community food bank. Where they complained about the neighbours, the mice. The violence. I knocked on the door before entering, as was the custom. At the far end of the room, Camille Blanchard sat behind a wooden desk, on its surface a coffee cup, a telephone, and a stack of documents. Camille tapped the pile with a pen, then spoke into the phone.
“Tell them you have my authority to enter the premises.” She saw me. “Hang on.”
“One minute,” she mouthed, then swivelled away, bursting into a hearty laugh before saying goodbye.
The office felt cramped compared to my sparsely decorated home, but it felt like I was visiting an old friend. At least that’s what I figured it would feel like if I had been visiting an old friend.
There was a loud creak when Camille eased her stout frame around the desk. She was dressed for tropical travel, as always, in a flowy cotton frock that matched her depressed blue eyes. Threads of silver streaked her fine blond hair, which was pulled back into a tight bun. Never having been petite, the extra weight she had gained suited her; less so, the leathery tan that aged her by ten years.
“Delia, it’s so good to see you.” She went to embrace me, then glanced down at the pan I held between us. “Is that for me?”
I noted her pungent scent. Was she nervous?
“Of course.” I handed it to her, relieved to part with the debt. She set the container on the desk, carefully unwrapped the foil covering, and clasped her hands together.
“Sweet potato pudding. Delia, you didn’t have to — I did this out of kindness.”
She took a slice of the dessert, then paused, and held it out to me.
I shook my head. “It’s all yours.”
She slipped the slice into her mouth.
“I had no idea you still lived around here. Thought you may have gone back to the suburbs or maybe overseas. Are you still in school?”
“Uh. Yeah.”
After long periods of solitude, it always took me some time to reacquaint myself with the art of conversation.
“You look great, by the way,” I said.
She shrugged. “By great — you mean large. Comes with age. Though I bet your mother didn’t gain a pound. How is she? Fill me in. All you mentioned in your message was the book. What about your sister? I was so busy I barely had time to check in on you before the move.”
Hand her the pudding. Ask about the diary. No dilly-dallying — that was the plan. However, Camille had her own ideas, including fabricating the events that led up to our leaving Don Mount Court. It was hard to believe she had forgotten that I had stopped talking to her.
“Everyone is fine. So, did you find my book?”
“We’re trying our best, but it’s difficult to get to. Are you sure it’s there?”
I nodded impatiently.
“How did that happen anyway?”
“It was an accident. Can I go in and help?”
“Absolutely not. Too much risk. If something happened to you …”
She popped another slice of pudding into her mouth, tilted her head, and peered at me over the top of her glasses.
“What have you been doing with your life besides studying — a boyfriend, maybe?”
Mother’s voice was close behind. Don’t tell her a thing.
“You’re still young. You’ll find someone.” She winked.
I felt a momentary sting.
“Has anyone else come back to visit?” I asked.
“Those kids? Hm.”
A twinge in her voice hinted at a deep hurt. The kind you’d find if you could dissect a parent’s heart and see feelings.
“Do you remember that summer when I bought everyone popsicles?” She perked up. “The line went all the way down the stairs. Mario’s hands went numb handing them out.”
My eyes lingered on the desk where Mario and I spent our days during the best summer of my life. A stirring in my chest.
“How is he?” I said.
She studied me like she was playing a game. Baiting me.
“Quite well. Too bad your mother didn’t think he was good enough or —”
Camille paused for a reaction. I said nothing, so she couldn’t tell she had offended me. I was supposed to be the one who beat the odds.
She continued carefully. “Though, I admired her style — at least that was consistent. She could be nice but at other times so standoffish, you know? She’d storm in demanding to speak to my superior. And the letters she wrote to head office. Folks always asked about her. They could tell you all weren’t from around here — the way you carried yourselves.”
I shifted my feet, gazing at the scuffed floor.
Where is the diary? Oh, God. Has she tricked me? What if she already found it? What if she read it?
“Wasn’t your father around at one point? I only ever saw … what was his name, Nevon … Neville? He was gorgeous. God, your mother had good taste. I remember this coat —”
The phone rang. Camille glanced at the telephone display before answering it.
“All set? Good.”
She replaced the receiver, then turned back around, looking me over as if I was being appraised for an auction.
“You can go now, but promise me you’ll come back to say goodbye.”
I nodded, then raced out, only stopping once arriving at the porch. I brushed the bottom of my shoes on the concrete step, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
I stepped inside.
My body tightened as if I’d stayed out past my curfew or picked up on one of Mother’s foul moods. She had a way of charging the air with her anger.
“Hello?” I looked around. “It’s Delia. I’m here for the —”
Then I saw it, sitting on the edge of the banister, trails drawn across its dusty brown cover where someone had attempted to clean it. Holding it, I felt lighter, like I was floating.
The diary was a gift from my eighth-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Anderson — a nice lady by my naive judgment. Inside the front cover she had written, “Still waters run deep.” I didn’t know what it meant but took it as a complex adult compliment. Someone in authority had given me permission to have a voice, and though the pages were discoloured and brittle where it had been burnt, against all Mother’s attempts to keep it from me, here it was. Here I was.

Editorial Reviews

Denise Da Costa’s And the Walls Came Down is a stunning addition to the new novels about Toronto, written by immigrants or their children, that claim the city, rightfully, as their own. It is also a complex and poignant portrait of a mother, a family and a world all falling apart, and a child’s attempt to survive this.

Shyam Selvadurai, author of Mansions of the Moon

And the Walls Came Down charts a bright, heartbroken young woman’s return to the ruins of her past. Stuck on the threshold of the rest of her life, Delia must reclaim her story in order to move on. As she reckons with a childhood haunted by loss, the city around her crackles with danger and friendship — not to mention the rush of first love. The result is a beautiful, necessary novel of resilience and renewal.

Alissa York, author of Far Cry

A fascinating and quintessentially Toronto story, capturing the grit of the city’s east-end in the 1990s. An insightful account of how memory and family collide with the stories we create for ourselves.

James D. Papoutsis, author and educator

An immersive and propulsive journey into adulthood that so piercingly questions pride, hope, and family. Don Mount Court comes alive in a collision of care, control, abuse, and love. What a privilege it is to share in Delia Ellis's diary, and life.

Derek Mascarenhas, author of Coconut Dreams

A scintillating debut full of nuanced and achingly human characters. Denise Da Costa’s ability to write poetic yet economical sentences that pack a profound emotional punch makes for a compelling and rich reading experience. This novel is a beautiful exploration of memory and perception and will linger in the minds of readers long after they’ve finished.

Zalika Reid-Benta, author of Frying Plantain

Chronicles an old soul and a young woman, both vying for belonging in a world that fights against them until they settle into one spirit. Striking and compelling, Da Costa weaves voices that are distinct yet inseparable.

Victoria Abboud, author and educator

A moving and unflinching portrait of family life as told through Delia, a woman who revisits early memories through her childhood diary. This distinctly Toronto story catapults readers into her inner world where togetherness meets abandonment and hope rubs alongside deprivation.

Tendisai Cromwell, writer and filmmaker

A complicated dance of memory, identity and community. What a gift of a novel.

Helen Walsh, author of Pull Focus

A moving glimpse into the immigrant experience through the eyes of an intelligent, independent teenager as she navigates growing up in face of family break-up and poverty. Seamlessly, Delia shares her pains and joys, sheds light into the harsh reality of Don Mount public housing in Toronto, and archives part of local and social history.

Maria Sabaye Moghaddam, author and educator

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