Je me sou­viens

Mon­treal fam­ily scarred by mem­o­ries of Oc­to­ber Cri­sis

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

FOR Cana­di­ans who live west of the Great Lakes, the Oc­to­ber Cri­sis of 1970 doesn’t ex­actly loom large in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. Our con­cept of the pe­riod when the Front de libéra­tion du Québec kid­napped gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in pur­suit of sovereignty is usu­ally limited to a few chap­ters in a high-school so­cial stud­ies text, or re­plays of Pierre Trudeau quip­ping “Just watch me” as he in­voked the War Mea­sures Act. For Que­be­cers, though, “la crise d’Oc­to­bre” is not so ab­stract. Claire Holden Roth­man’s sec­ond novel ex­am­ines the cul­tural and lin­guis­tic ten­sions of early 21st-cen­tury Mon­treal through a fam­ily whose pp­re­sent still re­ver­ber­ates with the ef­fects of the vi­o­lence of those long-past days. It’s 2001, three decades af­tera the Oc­to­ber Cri­sis and mere weeks after the de­struc­tion of the Twin Tow­ers. Luc Levesque is a nov­el­ist and Que­bec lit­er­ary dar­ling. Han­nah is his an­glo wife and also his En­glish­language trans­la­tor. Hugo is their trou­bled teenage son, at­tend­ing high school at his fa­mous fa­ther’s alma mater. My Oc­to­ber un­folds from the al­ter­nat­ing per­spec­tives of th­ese three Mon­treal­ers: one born French, one born English, and one born the re­sult of this un­easy union that may be un­rav­el­ling en­tirely. Luc is in the throes of a mid-life cri­sis. He would never iden­tify it as such, even as he lusts after his 25-year-old lit­er­ary agent. Han­nah is torn be­tween her cho­sen home in Mon­treal and the an­glo refuge of Toronto, where her fa­ther is now hos­pi­tal­ized fol­low­ing a se­vere stroke. Th­ese char­ac­ters — the in­se­cure mid­dle-aged man, the woman sand­wiched be­tween car­ing for her child and her par­ents, the angst-rid­den teen — are fa­mil­iar, but far from cliché in Roth­man’s hands. Roth­man ex­pertly ren­ders the emo­tional land­scapes of her char­ac­ters. For­get ac­tion se­quences — you’ll be hard pressed to find a scene more grip­ping than one that takes place in a fam­ily ther­apy ses­sion. Like any good fam­ily drama, My Oc­to­ber ex­plores the sub­tle ways that a fam­ily’s past bleeds into the present. Re­gard­less of their re­spec­tive ages, th­ese char­ac­ters all have some grow­ing up to do. Han­nah’s ther­a­pist de­fines adult­hood as “when a per­son can tell the story of his par­ents, re­ally imag­ine them as be­ings with their own com­plex pasts.” At 14, Hugo is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this tran­si­tion. But so are his par­ents, in not-so-dif­fer­ent ways. Luc has to face that the mythol­ogy sur­round­ing his own late fa­ther might not be what it seems. Han­nah, mean­while, must ex­am­ine her fa­ther’s legacy, as well; Al­fred Stern es­caped pre-war Aus­tria as a Jewish child on the Kin­der­trans­port. But this was not his last ex­ile — he left Que­bec after he served a con­tro­ver­sial role as a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor dur­ing the Oc­to­ber Cri­sis. For western Cana­dian read­ers, the Oc­to­ber Cri­sis might not be the eas­i­est en­try point for a novel. But by giv­ing us this story in English, Claire Holden Roth­man has pro­vided an in­ti­mate win­dow into the scars left by that era, unique to that place and time. Good sto­ries take the spe­cific and make it univer­sal. This com­pelling, finely crafted novel ac­com­plishes that beau­ti­fully. Jenny Henkel­man is a Win­nipeg writer

and broad­caster.

ARTHUR HOLDEN PHOTO

Roth­man’s My Oc­to­ber ex­plores the sub­tle ways that a fam­ily’s past bleeds into the present.

My Oc­to­ber

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