I read and enjoyed Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, so I was excited to read her second novel.
In present-day Montreal, Jimmy, a young man who bears a striking resemblance to General James Wolfe, visits the city for 11 days. General Wolfe died September 13, 1759, on the Plains of Abraham in a pivotal battle in Canadian history, but Jimmy seems to have Wolfe’s memories. In 1752, Wolfe lost an 11-day leave in Paris because of the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar; now Jimmy takes that leave in Montreal.
The mystery, of course, is who Jimmy is. Surely he can’t be who he claims to be, and there are hints and clues that suggest Jimmy is very much a contemporary man. Wolfe fought battles at Culloden and Dettingen, but he wouldn’t have been in Ghundy Ghar which Jimmy mentions in the first few pages. The best description of Jimmy is as a figure on a Tarot card: “The man does not appear to know where to go or how to move beyond loss.” At the beginning, Jimmy speaks of his “waiting for the crater that might jolt me properly into being in the present instead of floating in the past.” It is difficult to believe that Jimmy is Wolfe, but it becomes clear that he is certainly a veteran damaged by his experiences in war; he describes himself as having “no shield against reliving war in Technicolor, all night, every day.”
Obviously, the book focuses on the futility of war. If a soldier were able, in the future, to return to the battlefield on which he died, would he find that his sacrifice had been worthwhile? Wolfe won Canada for England and had believed “there would grow a people here, out of our own little spot in England, to fill this space and become a vast Empire, the seat of power and learning,” but Jimmy, during a visit to Costco, concludes, “It is as if England has had a nightmare in which the Empire’s crowning achievement has been to inflate the size of material goods.” Wolfe hoped “boys who became soldiers with me . . . I really thought the New World was supposed to give them a chance at a parcel of ground” but Jimmy finds only “the old, weary bondage” because “the poor toil here unexalted as ever. As for the well-provided, their banal crowing echoes the clang of trussell on planchet under every New World moment: a relentless strike of metal into coin.” Jimmy concludes that it is “ludicrous to call the land owned, conquered, taken by one small group of men who do not even plan to stay on it.”
The time and place of a war is unimportant: “I have surveyed moor . . . desert . . . does the terrain’s name matter? Land outspans army and king. It outlives us, and will outbreathe us. Does the year of any given campaign – Dettingen, Culloden, Quebec, Ghundy Ghar – do its dates mean a thing? I dig up human bones everywhere – no matter where we fight a war, that land holds bones in it from previous warriors.” And history has not had a paucity of battlefields: “’There have been a lot of enemies in a few well-chosen hellholes.’” The suggestion is that war and soldiers have always been with us and always will be: “All warriors descend from a single, ancient Council of War forged at the dawn of manhood.” It is easy to draw men into war: “How little deception is needed when men believe so fervently in bits of bright cloth.” And the result is always the same: broken men.
There is some commentary about contemporary life in la belle province. Jimmy is aghast at how little English he encounters since Wolfe won the country for England in 1759. In Quebec City, Jimmy sees the monument shared by Montcalm and Wolfe and makes a telling observation: “It came to me then, that every monument, every object in the plains museum, every rose and bleeding heart nodding its head in the Joan of Arc garden bejewelling the Plains of Abraham, every citizen and every ship and bird and fish in and on the river, attest to the continued life in Quebec of the people of Wolfe and Montcalm, standing on the same ground but, like the names on the plinth overlooking the river, never seeing each other.”
I knew little about General James Wolfe other than what I was taught in high school Canadian history classes so many years ago. It is obvious that Kathleen Winter did considerable research. I advise readers to do some reading about the man before reading the book; even the Wikipedia article would be helpful in explaining some of the references. Look at Benjamin West’s painting entitled “The Death of General Wolfe” (https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/-/MQGJPSKUj9ySHg?hl=en) to appreciate Jimmy’s comment: “a literary person called Margaret Atwood claimed West made me appear like a dead, white codfish, and I had to agree.”
At first I struggled with the book. It is sometimes difficult to know what is real and what isn’t. Jimmy is the narrator and his thoughts wander so a reader may find him/herself confused at times. After finishing the novel, I went back to the beginning and did a quick second reading. This book is the type that needs a re-reading to highlight Winter’s accomplishment. Images and symbols clarify themselves. The book is not perfect because it does drag at times and some of the events are predictable, but it has much to recommend it: the protagonist, the setting, and the themes are all well-developed.
Note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.