My October by Claire Holden Rothman
Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The October 1970 kidnapping of James Cross and Pierre Laporte by the Front de libération du Québec—and Laporte’s subsequent murder—shook Quebec to its core. It signaled the end, not just of the FLQ’s decade-long campaign of violence, but of the public’s belief that the FLQ’s pro-independence veneer made them more than just a group of terrorists. Whatever else may be said, in late1970 Quebec finally was forced to face itself.
The October Crisis echoes through Claire Holden Rothman’s new novel, “My October.” Luc Levesque, a successful novelist, was a radical student in the 1960s. To his fans, he is a writer in the vein of Gabrielle Roy, “the voice of Quebec . . . the voice of a generation”—in his case, the generation of the 1960s. His wife Hannah is the daughter of Alfred Stern, a Holocaust survivor and Montreal defense lawyer who was appointed special prosecutor against the FLQ. Luc, Hannah, and their 14-year-old son Hugo live in the St. Henri district of Montreal, the locale of Roy’s 1946 book “Bonheur d’occasion” [“The Tin Flute” in English], which was one of the initial sparks for the Quiet Revolution. Luc’s last name is the same as Roy’s protagonist. And their house is on Laporte Street.
But in October 2001, life is unsettled. Luc and Hannah barely talk to each other, and Hugo is moody and uncommunicative. He speaks in monosyllables when he speaks as all, and retreats into video games behind the closed door of his bedroom, to the frustration of both parents.
Luc has also retreated into himself. His last novel was a disappointment, and, as his 50th birthday approaches, Luc finds he is unable to write at all. Instead of sitting at his desk, he spends his time doing sit-ups to tighten his softening belly. And Hannah is tired. After dedicating years to translating her husband’s works, she just can’t do it any more. When Alfred Stern has a stroke, Hannah feels obliged to go to Toronto to help her mother. But this is a strain; she is estranged from her father. When the Parti Quebecois won power in 1976, her parents joined the Anglo exodus to Toronto. Hannah chose to stay behind with Luc. Visits have not been frequent.
While his mother is away in Toronto, Hugo is caught with an unloaded gun at school—a Luger. Luc nearly goes berserk—his father killed himself with a Luger. He is beside himself, nearly violent toward his son. He decides to move out. Hannah returns home to a life she does not recognize any more.
Rothman is writing about people regaining their voices as individuals, voices that have been silenced by bitterness and resentment or mothered by denial. Through several small but pointed incidents, Luc and in particular Hannah begin to confront what they couldn’t face before and to ask themselves what it will take to move forward. Rothman’s writing is crisp and unadorned. Her plain words reveal, very simply and directly, what each person has suffered and stifled, the bits of personal pain that this particular month of October will no longer permit to be submerged. She does not overdramatize this process of personal confrontation. There are no speeches or impassioned monologues. The characters’ awareness is gradual and sobering, their progress uneven and difficult.
The introduction of James Cross into the story at the end, offstage, brings the focus back to the October Crisis. The context is a video school project that Luc helps his son with, in which both allow Cross to finally speak for himself. The next voice is Hannah’s as she decides to give herself her own voice instead of translating others’. This appears to be based on the author’s own experience as a translator turned novelist and adds another degree of intimacy to the book. The message, though, seems clear: once you have declared your voice to the world, you need never go back.
At the end Rothman has Hannah pick up her old school copy of “Bonheur d’occasion.” and re-discover the voices of the working class people of St. Henri. That book once forced Quebecers to look at themselves, and Rothman is perhaps reminding us that, as myth constantly, stealthily encroaches upon reality in our minds, true liberation requires seeing things as they are.
“My October” is a book with deepening layers as you read, a thoughtful work whose careful insights linger long in the mind.