My October by Claire Holden Rothman
Penguin Canada, 2014.
352 pages, $22.95
Claire Holden Rothman’s sophomore novel, My October, has received a whirlwind of merited attention. It was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Although the novel examines how the October Crisis of 1970 still resonates in the lives of the Québécois, its main focus explores how cultural identity can impact relationships. The story revolves around three unravelling protagonists: venerated novelist and nationalist Luc Lévesque, his dejected wife Hannah, and their troubled teenage son Hugo. They all struggle to connect with each other while their family comes undone.
Luc Lévesque walks away from the burdens of family life in October 2001. He moves into the run-down, wedge house that figures prominently in Gabrielle Roy’s French-Canadian classic—Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute). Those of us who cherish that beloved novel may find “the wooden structure tapering at one end like a boat’s hull, ‘twisted, as if to brace itself against life’s shocks’” to be a fitting home for Luc. He’s a washed-up man, having a mid-life crisis, heading off course at alarming speed.
Worries plague Hannah Lévesque during this tense autumn. Being the daughter of Alfred Stein—viewed by separatists as an infamous anglophone prosecutor during the October Crisis—has never been easy. The father-daughter relationship becomes more difficult after Stein suffers a stroke that renders him unable to speak. While Hannah is caring for her father, her disgruntled husband moves out. It becomes impossible for her to concentrate on her work or routine tasks. Our hearts ache when she worries about Hugo, who “was a black hole, singular and unknowable, into which she was pouring her darkest, most inarticulate fears.”
Hugo causes a stir after being suspended for carrying a handgun to school. The rebellious teen rejects his overbearing, famous father. In fact, he renounces Luc’s native tongue, culture, and beliefs by speaking English and adopting Hannah’s maiden name. Hugo manifests a desperate need to learn about past events that divided his father and maternal grandfather. Alongside Hugo, we revisit the role of the separatist terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in the 1970 kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross.
Certain plot elements in this family saga are hard to swallow, the most obvious being the improbability of Luc—a dur de dur separatist—marrying an anglophone woman who happens to be the daughter of the man responsible for prosecuting his friends. Other weak plot elements figure in the over-the-top epilogue, which may disappoint readers. Perhaps the author tried to tackle too many topics to create a tangible tension. Still, we can overlook such details (especially if we skip the epilogue) because Claire Holden Rothman creates a convincing voice for the Québécois. She captures the malaise of Francophone characters coping in a post-referendum and post-9/11 time with astute accuracy.
Like the much-loved characters in Bonheur d’occasion, Luc, Hannah, and Hugo face solitude and despair. Readers will surely brace themselves amid the turbulence to find out how the Lévesque family pull through—or apart.