The Talking Dead
Can Kathleen Winter’s new novel make us care about Canada’s past?
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.