The Talk­ing Dead

Can Kath­leen Win­ter’s new novel make us care about Canada’s past?

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Michelle Dean

In high school, I never paid much at­ten­tion to lessons on the Bat­tle of the Plains of Abra­ham. Per­haps I should be ashamed. I am, af­ter all, the daugh­ter of two peo­ple born and raised in Que­bec. And so, in the­ory, the bat­tle in which the Bri­tish beat the French and that, ul­ti­mately, led to the end of French rule in Canada should be foun­da­tional to my ex­is­tence. But if you were to ask me to de­scribe it to you, the year 1759 would rise eas­ily to the sur­face of my mind, and that’s it: the date is all that I re­mem­ber.

So, for the first forty or so pages of Kath­leen Win­ter’s new novel, Lost in Septem­ber, the main thing I felt was be­wil­der­ment. The book, which is ob­sessed with the his­tory of the Seven Years’ War in Canada, is cen­tred on “Jimmy,” an itin­er­ant fig­ure who, in 2017, lives in a tent in Mon­treal’s Mount Royal park. He also claims to be the English gen­eral James Wolfe — the same James Wolfe who, at just thirty-two, led the English to vic­tory at the Plains of Abra­ham and ul­ti­mately died there, felled by three mus­ket balls.

The novel is not quite his­tor­i­cal fic­tion; it’s more of a his­tor­i­cal ghost story. Jimmy in­sists that each Septem­ber, he is doomed to wan­der Que­bec in pur­suit of an eleven-day mil­i­tary leave that the eigh­teenth-cen­tury Wolfe, for com­pli­cated rea­sons, never got to take. We meet a home­less woman named So­phie, who might be called Jimmy’s boon com­pan­ion, as she hoards Habi­tant soup cans and makes know­ing ref­er­ences to poet Wil­liam Wordsworth and his sis­ter, Dorothy (“Al­ways want­ing pic­nics”). We fol­low Jimmy to Costco, where he buys knack­wurst and muses about how strange the sur­round­ings look to him. (Ev­ery­thing there is large, “even the peo­ple, their bod­ies slug­gish and dis­tended.”) These pas­sages can be sharp and ob­ser­vant.

But mostly, Jimmy stum­bles through the world in a daze. He tries to con­vince oth­ers of his true iden­tity: dur­ing a trip to Que­bec City, he cri­tiques the in­ac­cu­ra­cies of bat­tle re-en­ac­tors at the Plains of Abra­ham; he ap­proaches Genevieve Waugh, a writer re­search­ing Wolfe at the li­brary, and tells her she ought to get the story straight from “the horse’s mouth,” i.e., from him. He also fre­quently lapses into the por­ten­tous ca­dences of the eigh­teenth cen­tury — “Land, wind and clouds were present be­fore our car­nage, and af­ter it they con­tinue to lie, proper” is the sort of thing he’s prone to say to him­self in his day­dream state.

There are oc­ca­sional dis­plays of nov­el­is­tic in­tel­li­gence in Lost in Septem­ber, hints that Win­ter has a care­ful read on the dis­in­te­grat­ing psy­che of her pro­tag­o­nist. Jimmy’s let­ters to “his mother” (mean­ing James Wolfe’s long-dead mother), for ex­am­ple, al­low us a glimpse of Win­ter’s com­pli­cated grasp of hu­man re­la­tion­ships: “Knowl­edge is heal­ing, So­phie says, but I do not think all knowl­edge helps moth­ers.” But such flashes of clar­ity are brief. Most of the time, Win­ter gives up on plot and leads her reader around with Jimmy’s dream logic. And other peo­ple’s dreams are rarely in­ter­est­ing.

What Lost in Septem­ber seems to re­ally be about — though it’s not clear if it knows this — is the anx­i­ety that lead­ing Cana­dian cul­tural fig­ures some­times have about the his­tory of our coun­try. You know the old com­plaint: Cana­dian his­tory is bor­ing. It just doesn’t live in the way the his­to­ries of other coun­tries do. Oc­ca­sion­ally, our artists — nov­el­ists, in par­tic­u­lar — get the no­tion that they’d like to change this. I some­times think they look across the ocean and see a writer like Hi­lary Man­tel read­ily equipped with Henry VII for her Wolf Hall tril­ogy — a char­ac­ter as ruth­less and rib­ald as any screen­writer could ever want a vil­lain to be. Or they look south, where Ge­orge Saun­ders gets to chron­i­cle Abra­ham Lin­coln, one of the great flawed moral au­thor­i­ties of the nine­teenth cen­tury, for Lin­coln in the Bardo. Cana­dian nov­el­ists no­tice this and think to them­selves: I’d like to do this for us.

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