One of the skills I developed during my undergraduate degree was finding connections among the books I was reading for different courses. I’d hear about an idea in one course and take that idea and put it to work in another; or I’d notice themes from one novel resonating in another course that might be distant in time or geography. I’m not sure whether this cross-reading was intention on the part of the program (I’m pretty sure not) but the consequence was that I took personal pleasure in finding these moments of connection or overlap. I’d probably have made for an excellent thematic critic. Alas. I raise all of this because even now with the combination of my terrible memory and my appetite for reading I often find myself midway into a book and certain I’ve recently read something similar, or surprised that everyone seems to be writing about X topic (which probably owes more to how I select what I read than the novels themselves…).
Such is the case in reading Kathleen Winter’s new novel Lost in September. Now part of this feeling of cross-connection is because Lost in September is historical fiction (sort of). The story imagines the life of General James Wolfe very much in the present as our protagonist, Jimmy, is convinced he is Wolfe, displaced in time and stumbling about present day Quebec in search of his lost days. And its not just that I’ve read a lot of historical fiction (and yes, I’ve read a lot of historical fiction), but also that this genre is a popular one and so you don’t have to read far or wide to have read a novel exploring the way we imagine the past to help understand the present. So the passages and points in this novel about the resonance of the past and the blurring of time feel familiar and worn, even while told in this fresh way of having a historical figure living and breathing in the present day.
The other piece contributing to this feeling of repetition on a theme is the preoccupation in the novel with the way trauma (specifically war trauma) distorts the individual experience of time. I’ve just finished reading Birdie which explores the same set of questions, and here, too, we find our protagonist ‘trapped’ in time. In this case Jimmy/James is in search of his ‘lost’ eleven days (when the British moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian every citizen lost eleven days) and so is doomed/destined each year to repeat the search – which is (of course) really a search for a life outside the military, a life of familial connection, a life rid of trauma. Reading two books in as many weeks interested in how the experience of trauma distorts our sense of time has me asking myself why this question is resonant in this cultural moment (we are certainly not short of trauma – personal, national and otherwise) and how we individually and collectively experience such disruptions in and through time. All with the expectation that we will eventually ‘right’ ourselves and get back on the train of linear, predictable, forward-moving time.
In this novel present-time is one of all surfaces and shine, where Jimmy/James years for the connection and depth he felt in the past, and wants to see returned to him. This present of surface and shine is that of a capitalist alienation (“Everything is so ostentatious yet unreal: the buildings, the parsnips, the athletic people running along the Saint Lawrence in their clothing that seems to have been made out of rubber pressed paper-thin than overlaid with silver lighting-bolts’ ‘You’d like runners to wear handspun outfits?’ ‘I’d like to look at a thing that remains itself all the way through and isn’t made of chemical compounds that have been solidified and macerated then solidified again to resemble building stones or fabric of any kind'” (52). What Jimmy works to realize over the novel is the way he has idealized the past (*cough* MAGA) and how this idealized past overlooks the inequities and violences of the past, too (James is entirely focused on what the British did to the French, entirely ignoring what both colonial powers did to the indigenous nations) in order to imagine some prelapsarian moment that might be returned.
The writing here is beautiful and the structure of the novel dense and delightful. Understandably (and perhaps predictably) the plot lacks forward momentum: we do travel the eleven days, but not much ‘happens’ and that’s just fine. Instead we spiral in and out of time with our at once unreliable and endearing narrator.
I expect you’ll see this one on short lists of different sorts. I’d put it on my short list of novels about history, trauma and time. Which I seem to be stumbling on whether I intend to or not.