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The Streets of Winter

by Stephen Henighan

Author and notable critic Stephen Henighan has criticized CanLit for “failing to engage the urban present.” It is unclear, then, why Henighan has chosen to set his new novel amid an urban reality – Montreal in the late 1980s – that has largely vanished.

The Streets of Winter traces the lives of three characters. Teddy is a rich orphan from Ottawa. As an anglo Ontarian he can’t communicate with les Montréalais; as a rich kid he can’t seduce a working class girl; and as a WASP he can’t connect with an immigrant Greek girl he meets in his apartment building. Marcel is a Moroccan Jew married to a francophone from a wealthy Outremont family. He needs money to overcome his religious and cultural otherness and be accepted by the true Québécois. He accepts the unsavory job of evicting Teddy and his fellow tenants so the building can be gentrified. Finally, there is André, an unhappily divorced, gay separatist who pines for the heady days of revolution.

The Streets of Winter suffers as a sociological soap opera. Characters spout diatribes rather than dialogue. Post-coital conversations are about politics or culture. The time period depicted is unconvincing and littered with anachronisms: no one at a Westmount party would say it was unusual to hear French. The cliché is that Westmount is an anglo enclave; the reality is that it has been predominantly francophone for decades.

How much richer and more challenging it would have been to discard old truths about Montreal and make The Streets of Winter a truly contemporary urban novel that can engage the reader with characters rather than clichés.