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Review: Kathleen Winter's Lost in September is evocative, humane and totally original

Kathleen Winter.

Roger LeMoyne

Title
Lost in September
Author
Kathleen Winter
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
291
Price
$29.95

It's perhaps appropriate for a novel about PTSD – and specifically, PTSD as the result of armed conflict, and how some sufferers are unable to recall pivotal aspects of their traumas – that Lost in September is shrouded in narrative fog. It's difficult to describe, sort out. But as with many peculiar books, it's worth your time – evocative, humane and (maybe) totally original.

We start with a preface by a Genevieve (Jenny) Waugh, a historian who's dedicated the book to another GJW: General James Wolfe. Students of colonial history will remember Wolfe as the guy credited with Britain's victory over France on the Plains of Abraham on Sept. 13, 1759: a decisive battle that not only saw Quebec fall into British control, but also claim Wolfe's life.

After the preface, the narrator shifts from Waugh to Wolfe himself. But this isn't quite historical fiction. Rather, we meet him as a homeless man in modern-day Montreal: Wolfe transmigrated, reborn – or someone so unmoored from reality that he believes, with every fibre in his gangly frame, that he is the dead general.

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At the very least, he's his dead ringer: tall, redhaired, weak of chin and melancholy, as depicted in Benjamin West's famous painting. He speaks with antique flourish – not the actual archaisms of 18th-century prose, but as a smart person might imitate. And he's brimming with encyclopedic knowledge of Wolfe's life, and of life in the 1700s in general. "A man can linger amongst the living even if he has died," he explains, "trying to make peace with what he has lost."

What's he lost? Much, but most emphatically are 11 days of leave he was owed in 1752, but missed when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar and summoned him to war – depriving him of what he calls "my dancing days … my time of freedom from a decade of combat." Now, revenant-Wolfe is spending another September in Montreal, obsessing over his lost furlough, which seems to hold the key to his "eternal homelessness."

As with Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury – or Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, unstuck in time and suffering from PTSD – Wolfe's chief problem is chronology. His past is a fragmentary mess where all wars – Cartagena, Dettingen, Culloden, Quebec – "transpire in a single battlefield during one timeless period." To jolt him "back to the present" is Sophie Cotterill, a 60-year-old janitor and owner of a "Shamanic Tent": a place of convalescence, sass, flatulence and muscular hand jobs (a repulsive, unfunny character, she's the book's one point of tedium). To her, Wolfe must return to the spot where he "perished" on the Plains, resetting time in a lightning stroke of epiphany.

Cloudy, no? Waugh even returns as a character in Wolfe's narrative, but she's the author of the entire text – so who's writing whom? Rather than pretending strict realism, Winter's characters all seem slightly unreal – with one foot in "ostentatious" Montreal and the other planted in a spiritual realm, animated by "emanations," tarot cards, dryads and talking marmots. These metaphysical elements lend themselves to whimsy – and many of Wolfe's travails in modernity are indeed comical (imagine a dude role playing as a redcoat, bumbling about pawn shops and being tossed from various establishments).

But if you can digest the silliness, you'll also find a novel of suspense and lyricism. Wolfe's ontological identity is kept in tension through pointed reference to unexplained characters – a matronly Madam Blanchard, a lost companion named Elwyn – who don't seem to belong to the 1750s. And Winter's writing is undeniably elegant: undulating with recurring motifs of water and rivers, blindness and vision, a painterly attention to detail involving primary coloured figures that lend more elemental power to the prose.

Any fictional rendering of our bloody colonial past also needs a serious hand. Accordingly, Winter delivers harrowing accounts of cruelty along the St. Lawrence. The real-life Wolfe was a real marauder, infamously slashing fishing nets and terrorizing the local populace. Scenes of sobering violence, how-to guides to scalping and pillaging, the disgusting revelation that "redcoats scalped any Canadian they pleased: Indian, habitant, woman or babe" are thrown into relief against modern anti-war sentiments: revenant-Wolfe's uncomfortable realization that all his murder was "for the greater good of England" but ultimately for nothing.

Wolfe's stubbornness and tenderness, his love of dogs and comrades, of art and his mother, reveal a multidimensional person haunted by the past, a hope not to lose his "humanity" despite years of killing. And however misty or complex its forces, Lost in September coalesces into a touching portrait of a broken man, as well as a considerable addition to the literature of war, of trauma and recovery. It's energized by a deep compassion for our drive to heal and remember, even in the shadow of unimaginable bloodshed: an afterworld where time ceases to make sense, and regrets can last a lifetime – and some, perhaps, might even last forever.

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Spencer Gordon is the author of the short-story collection Cosmo and the poetry collection Cruise Missile Liberals

Video: Chris Colfer of Glee on bringing his book series to film (The Canadian Press)
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