- Established Fiction
Primary among the many tensions in fiction is the one between individual, lived experience and the larger social forces that push human lives into unwished-for patterns. As eclectic as the Canadian works of fiction appearing in 2017 are – from historical novels to stories of racial difference to satire to [End Page 18] experimental works – and as great as the gains of individual freedom have been over the last half-century, nearly all of the works bear witness, in one way or another, to this struggle between the individual and the social group. This is not to say that the fiction by established writers romanticizes individualist rebellion. In certain cases, as in Suzette Mayr's very funny Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, the social group is oppressive, though Mayr doesn't necessarily validate individual's response, while in others, such as Joel Thomas Hynes's We'll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night, to loosen the system's heavy strictures might be to invite Nero into one's home. In some of the year's best novels, including Michael Redhill's Bellevue Square, Peter Unwin's Searching for Petronius Totem, and Jean McNeil's The Dhow House, it's difficult to say where the individual ends and the group begins.
Five of 2017's significant works are historical fiction – four engaging with Canadian history, and one reaching all the way back into the Pleistocene Epoch. In Lost in September, Kathleen Winter's historical subject is General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec, whose letters the University of Toronto acquired for $1.5 million in 2013. Winter engages profoundly with the documentary record, particularly Wolfe's letters. Yet the novel also departs extravagantly from history in that Wolfe, who died during the 1759 conquest, reappears in contemporary Montreal, trying to reclaim eleven days that he lost in the 1752 changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and, by reclaiming them, to resurrect his feminine persona that military life stole. Winter treats the psychological split between Wolfe's military father and his clinging, despairing mother as a split between Wolfe's socially enforced English identity and a wished-for French identity that could have materialized had he been allowed to spend the lost days on furlough in Paris, taking dance lessons.
It's commendable for Winter to pull together two Wolfes: the careful battle tactician and the poet who reputedly said that he would rather have penned Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" than take Quebec tomorrow. Winter gives Wolfe flesh as a homeless man, wandering around Montreal. He struggles with memories of an over-attached mother, a distant fiancée, fellow generals who caricature his weak chin, and young men who he loved far more deeply than women. She meditates on the inconsistencies: how can the admirer of Gray also be the one who starved Quebec civilians, including children, as part of his military strategy? But her Wolfes don't hang together well, since her solution, at times, is to dismiss the military man in favour of the poet. More intriguingly, Winter hints that "Wolfe" may have been born very recently and have spent a tour of duty in Afghanistan. This adds weight to Winter's questions about identity and about the social pressures on masculinity.
As talented and poetic as Winter is, the novel sometimes feels aimless. Wolfe catalogues Montreal (and later Quebec) cityscapes as if he were a convenient device on which to hang the writer's unedited notebook. There is something a bit precious about Wolfe mourning a "beautiful, beloved, lost [End Page 19] French world" in Paris and in Montreal, Winter renouncing the architectural impact of the English conquest of Quebec. Through the character of Wolfe's biographer Genevieve Waugh, Winter dramatizes the process of writing a historical novel, but Wolfe's self-reflexive question, "What has history decided about me?" is too much the writer's question, rather than the reader's. It's unintentionally ironic that Waugh praises Erich Maria Remarque's first-hand account of World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, while Winter, for her part...