My October is one of the most politically audacious novels I have ever read, certainly for Canadian fiction. Claire Holden Rothman crawls under rugs most of us in this province have left untouched, and the dust she stirs up is impressive.
It begins innocently – if not a little slowly. Set in 2001, Luc Lévesque is a Québec icon, a writer who has personified a parochial and noble Québécois de souche in his novels. A kind of serious Michel Tremblay, he is revered wherever he goes. There had been a collective gasp when he married a Westmount anglo – more about her later – but les gens du pays got over it and moved on. He lives a simple writing life in St. Henri with his wife and son. The mistress on the side, a young francophone publicist, lets him have his gateau and eat it too.
It’s his teenage son, Hugo, who is responsible for the eventual unravelling of Luc Lévesque’s life and, consequently, the opening of a tear large enough to let some hard truths out of the sac. While Hugo’s anger is initially chaotic, it is soon channelled into a history project by a nationalist teacher, Vien, an old friend of Luc's. Vien wants Hugo to study the noble history of the FLQ and the October Crisis. Too predictable for the mercurial Hugo, the boy settles on James Cross, the English diplomat kidnapped and held at gunpoint for two months some thirty years earlier.
This troubles Hugo’s parents, but for very different reasons. Hannah, his mother, is the daughter of Alfred Stern, an anglo lawyer who had sent key members of the FLQ to prison. For Luc, having all this history thrown back up in his face is just too much. He leaves the family and begins a downward spiral of frothy anger and guilt. Hannah, for her part, begins a journey towards acceptance and love. She is the conscience and heart of both the family and the novel. Eventually, she runs into her own life, “a woman in her forties running hard, the way few women do, with a purpose.”
Hugo is undeterred. His mission to explore James Cross’s experience is a daring one, an anvil on which his own political opinions and views are forged. That each of his parents intimately represent warring views is not lost on him.
There is a shocking appearance in My October of a key person from the October crisis – who knew he was still alive? – and much articulated challenge (often in the voice of Hugo, occasionally Hannah) to the dominant narrative of everything from la revolution tranquille to les nègres blancs to la loi 101.
While My October gets off to a slow start, the details are important and inform later action. Once or twice it feels like the effort to reveal these current and historical linguistic tensions creates awkward scenes where people eye each other a little too suspiciously, occasionally threatening to veer into caricature – not a good look for a novel of ideas and politics. In spite of this, My October holds together like an old stone house in a storm. In other words, very very well.
The thrill of reading My October is akin to finding an old lover’s diary that you really shouldn’t read, but – of course! – you do. Oh, the things you find out.
First posted in Rover.