Je me souviens
Montreal family scarred by memories of October Crisis
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
Rothman’s My October explores the subtle ways that a family’s past bleeds into the present.