Three narrative threads jostle for space in My October, Claire Holden Rothman’s first novel since The Heart Specialist, which was longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The first recalls the turbulent events of October 1970 in Quebec, during which the FLQ held a British diplomat hostage for 59 days. Another strand operates on a meta level, dwelling on language, the writing life, and the act of translation, which, within the French-English divide, is both a bridge and a betrayal. (It’s here that Rothman, also a translator, is at her most reflective.) The third, and main, storyline involves a family (melo)drama of a failing marriage.
All three plotlines intersect when, in October 2001, 14-year-old Hugo brings a vintage gun to school, to the shock of his father, Luc Lévesque, a writer and icon of Quebec nationalism, and his mother, Hannah, the dutiful translator of her husband’s work. Both parents have personal connections to the events of 1970.
The rule of three carries over to the novel’s structure, divided into three main parts that toggle uncomfortably among the inner workings of father, son, and mother. But while form and content align, the latter suffers from a tendency to overplot and, as the title suggests, a desire to graft a family story onto a particularly nasty chapter in Canadian history.
There’s no compelling reason for this story to unfold in October 2001, except to make (admittedly sharp) references to violent versus non-violent resistance within Quebec and in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks. But it’s the personal, not the political, that suffers most. Too much internal struggle rests on Hugo’s underdeveloped shoulders to lend the novel serious resonance. Rothman also stops short of convincing us that Hugo’s parents have ever been a loving couple. Luc is abrasive – a fantasy of the French intellectual as horny curmudgeon – while Hannah’s long-suffering-wife goodness borders on the Victorian.
The somewhat happy ending is not only unearned (and glossed over) but so Hollywood that it makes awakening the ghosts of Quebec’s past feel more like a violation than a literary intervention.