by Claire Holden Rothman
Penguin Canada, 2014
“I wish there would be no story to tell” (James Richard Cross, 2001) reads the epigraph at the beginning of Claire Holden Rothman’s My October. A story there is, although it is certainly not restricted to Cross’s kidnapping during Quebec’s 1970 October Crisis. In fact, labelling the novel “political fiction” on the front cover seems a little overblown, a little restrictive, for a piece of writing as intricately put together as this. Storytelling, not politics, is at the very heart of Holden Rothman’s craft.
The narrative revolves around three main characters: Hannah, a literary translator who lives in Montreal and has distanced herself from her English-speaking family in Toronto; her husband Luc Lévesque, a famous nationalist writer and “the voice of a generation;” and their troubled fourteen-year-old son, Hugo, “a mélange […] a half-breed.” Intertextual references are everywhere. Luc Lévesque is most at home in gritty Saint-Henri, renting a rundown house that Gabrielle Roy had compared in The Tin Flute “to a sailing vessel, a clumsy one, cleaving waves of industrial dust and debris.” He is marked by his father’s story, identical to Pierre Vallières’ (“Both men had worked in factories. Both had had their spirits crushed by evil Anglo bosses. Luc Lévesque had made his name on this cliché: a French-Canadian martyr-father had figured in every one of his books.”). Hugo, too, is inspired by Vallières: Nègres blancs d’Amérique prompts him to “find [his] past again and relive it in its smallest details.” But there is a problem:
“Like Vallières he was rediscovering the past. Only it was not his past. It belonged to his father, to [his teacher] Vien, to Jacques Lanctôt.”
What if Hugo’s own generation cannot compare to that of his father’s? Perhaps Hugo’s reality is that “his generation would be voiceless, condemned to having older men like his father repeat their own stories, thoughtlessly, mechanically, until they finally rolled over and died.”
Compared to nostalgia for the nationalist fervour of the 1960s and 1970s, we can’t help but wonder, like Luc, what exactly Hugo’s generation has to fight for? Marijuana? Video games?
Hannah, meanwhile, has troubles of her own. She translates her husband’s books, sifting through the thinly veiled references to family conflicts between her husband’s long-haired, working-class nationalist heroes and Hannah’s strict Jewish, anglophone father. Stern by name and stern by nature, he comes across in Lévesque’s fiction as “a bigot, a cartoon of a man, baiting his daughter’s French boyfriend without mercy.” These descriptions inflict no small amount of pain on Hannah, who gradually loses interest in her husband’s work.
This intertextuality and concern for perspective gives My October impressive depth, building layer upon layer of personal, family tension. Can all this tension be boiled down to politics? Perhaps. Sure there are references to the anglophone exodus, to the second referendum in 1995. Luc’s most recent book is inspired by Jacques Lanctôt, one of the men behind the October Crisis, “transformed, by wilful forgetting, into some kind of prophet.” And Hannah’s father, we learn, was named a special prosecutor in October 1970, becoming “the public face of government repression.”
Although in the fifty pages we spend with the characters before politics are mentioned, what comes first is family drama and lots of it in a very readable, cinematic page-turner. Hugo is in trouble at school. There are visits to Manny Mandelbaum in Westmount, “a saviour of fractured families.” And Luc is teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis, tempted by a PR girl half his age.
More than a “nuanced and heart-warming work of political fiction” (Shauna Singh Baldwin), My October is, I would argue, a novel about family, at the intersection of politics and culture in contemporary Quebec. Hannah and Luc once dreamed of “a marriage that would do away with the old divisions of language and culture, and make for them a space in which to live and work, side by side.” This is the world in which they live, Hannah speaking to their son in French, gliding effortlessly between both official languages depending on whether she’s back with her family in Toronto or at home with her husband in Saint-Henri. But to Hugo, his parents have failed to create a bilingual, bicultural paradise for themselves. He observes that his mother has clearly ended up on the losing side:
“This thing with his dad was killing her; anyone could see that. And yet she was the one who had given everything up, handing him her language, her culture, even her name, as if none of it meant a thing. How had she thought it would end? He couldn’t even feel sorry for her.”
There are political and cultural stereotypes — the Jewish lawyer, the nationalist writer, the son caught between both cultures — but they never feel overly explicit or contrived. Holden Rothman instead provides a background to each fully formed character that explains without pigeonholing. The webs that connect the characters to politics of old (Vien, Luc’s old friend and Hugo’s teacher was charged by Hannah’s father… Hannah’s parents knew James Richard Cross) feel more coincidental than contrived. And the author’s astute probing is not restricted to the dialogue between French and English Montrealers. It is a novel of sons (and daughters) and fathers. Of the sins of the father. Of old friends, and growing old. Of the lot of the immigrant, too, the boy with a red circle on his back.
Well-written insights illuminate these shifting perspectives, nudging the reader’s allegiances along from one character to the next, then back again, revealing the complexity of their pasts and the uncertainty of their futures. Overall, the plot is intricately crafted, focusing on the ups and downs of the characters, and hinting throughout that Claire Holden Rothman shares the realization that Hannah happens upon at the very end of the novel:
“It was all about telling someone’s story, getting under the skin, catching the intricate truth of personal history.”
Review by Peter McCambridge