Kathleen Winter’s first novel, Annabel, made a deserved splash in 2010: it became a national bestseller and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and a Governor General’s Literary Award. Winter followed that success with a travel memoir and a collection of short fiction, but fans were eager for her to return to the novel form. Enter Lost in September. Like Annabel, the new book contains a richly described landscape that is often boggy and ominous, and a protagonist who is leading a kind of double life.
On Sept. 13, 1759, British major general James Wolfe achieved final victory over the French army in the battle of the Plains of Abraham, forever changing the course of Canadian history. Winter’s premise is that a homeless man named Jimmy Blanchard, wandering the streets of present-day Montreal, may in fact be a reincarnation of that same historic James Wolfe. Not the war-mongering, history-book soldier, but a nuanced, wounded, grieving, poetry-loving figure suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, a man no one seems to understand. Winter’s Jimmy bounces around the city in search of himself, with the help of Sophie, a Mount Royal tent dweller; Harold, a fellow vagabond; and Genevieve Waugh, a shrewd biographer of Wolfe’s whom Jimmy encounters while reading the major general’s archived letters at the library.
Winter is adept at creating the 18th-century world of the historical James Wolfe, but displays less facility in dramatizing the modern Jimmy. Does Jimmy represent an act of resurrection (he truly believes he is Wolfe)? Is the exhumation of Wolfe meant to garner a finer appreciation of the historical figure, or to cast him as a kind of “everyman” in order to better illuminate the condition of PTSD? Both? And to what end?
In bridging the worlds of Wolfe and Jimmy, Winter employs scenes that parallel the natures and impediments we’ve come to expect with regard to the warrior figure: we are presented with the isolated loner, the expectant father, and the new military family built in brotherhood (complete with all its homoerotic undertones). The only thing that isn’t scrutinized is the violence, which is left mostly as an abstraction until the very end. Winter writes, “Civilians imagine we soldiers need to recover from the horrors of active duty, but it is the white-hot ordeal of a soldier’s inactive waiting that gnaws him from the inside out, starting with a walnut-sized cluster of dusty brown worms in his brain, and for me those worms are not done feeding yet.” It’s one thing to avoid glamourizing the violence of war, but here it feels as if the author simply doesn’t know what to do with it.
Winter treats Jimmy as a malcontent – unhappy, sour, agitated, at odds with his world. Jimmy’s language – which mirrors Wolfe’s own – is flowery, born of education and travel. Wolfe, by contrast, comes across as namby-pamby and obstinate, without the real heat of bitterness and confusion relating to the violence in his life. This keeps us from being horrified by Jimmy’s circumstances (since we must accept, on one level, that they are the same person). I was reminded of John Marston’s Jacobean drama The Malcontent, the story of the dethroned duke Altofront, who has adopted the alter ego Malevole to try to regain his position. In Lost in September, the historical Wolfe is the alter ego, and Jimmy is the one who needs to be redeemed.
One bright spot is Winter’s adeptness with scenes of peculiar grace. A memorable vignette involves Wolfe recollecting a woman and a blueberry pie, and a man and a dog – all spoils of war appropriated on his march toward the Plains. Another involves Harold, a pleasingly strange character, and an exchange in the YMCA showers that is comic and heartbreaking at once. As a character, Harold comes off without seeming too heavy-handed, unlike Sophie, who’s tiresome. It’s not that her character is difficult to pin down – she’s a sexualized babysitter, and we’re meant to like her because she’s a hard ticket. But her role as foil for Jimmy isn’t actually impassioned or consequential, and her character is responsible for the most stilted dialogue in the novel.
Lost in September is rich in possibility, but locked into Wolfe/Jimmy’s unreliable first-person POV, it is ultimately less successful than other works of speculative historical fiction. (One notable example is the recent George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which employs historical facts and figures as a launch pad for a much grander treatise on grief and human experience than is the case here.) A fine sentence and the occasional well-turned scene render Winter’s story tender, yet the book’s vitality and believability suffocate under too many writerly flourishes.