Armchair Book Club: Lost In September

Heather Allen is a book reviewer for the Penticton Western News

Lost in September is the book I was most highly anticipating in 2017.

After all, its author Kathleen Winter wrote Annabel, the much lauded book from 2010 about an intersex baby born in Labrador in the 1960s. This book was as celebrated for its depiction and discussion of gender issues, as it was for introducing everyday Labrador to the rest of Canada.

Annabel went on to become the only novel in history to be shortlisted for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Award – not to mention that it was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Although Annabel was as fantastic as the awards make it sound, it was more the highly imaginative and historical premise of Lost in September that made me want to pick it up. Lost in September tells the story of Jimmy Blanchard, a homeless man in Montreal who is, or believes he is, the ghost of General James Wolfe – the very one who defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

Blanchard is particularly obsessed with 11 days in September 1752, when Wolfe was supposed to be on leave in England. On the same days that were to be Wolfe’s leave, Britain made revisions to their Gregorian calendar, and cut almost two weeks in September out of the calendar year. Instead of resting, Wolfe found himself prematurely summoned back to war.

Unsatisfied in the afterlife, and still searching for that lost time, the ghost of Wolfe returns to Quebec for those 11 days every year. Or does he? A librarian researching Wolfe has her doubts. This is a book with major spoiler potential, so I can’t reveal more about the plot except to say that, as usual, Winter sets out to make you think – not just about Wolfe’s battles but about war through the ages.

She touches on what it’s really like to be in battle, how civilians are often mistreated, and how difficult it is to settle back into peacetime. Wolfe is haunted by bouts of self-doubt and guilt.

Although I found much to love in this book, and was astonished by the depth of Winter’s imagination, Lost in September momentarily lost its way partway through the story. Thankfully, it regains its momentum when Blanchard visits the Plains of Abraham on the anniversary of Wolfe’s death, ironically also in September.

Although this book may not end up being shortlisted for as many prestigious prizes as Annabel, it is wholly original, and definitely worth a read. I have found images from the book increasingly turning over in my imagination – especially when hearing stories and news reports about PTSD survivors and tormented civilians dealing with the aftermath of present day conflicts.

Heather Allen is a book reviewer for Black Press that lives in the Okanagan.

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