Sunday, October 07, 2007

October Richard B. Wright

Interesting. While I was reading this book the Giller Prize nominees were announced. October is on the list. Did this affect my take on the book? To be honest, it did – in a small way. While I was certainly enjoying the read, hearing it was a nominee made me pause and think, “Well, I guess this really is a great book.”

I have loved every one of Richard’s Wright’s previous novels (especially Clara Callan). His writing style – somewhat formal, spare, dignified – holds a special appeal. And his tales always deliver – make me ponder both during and after the reading of each book.

However, while I liked October, I did not love it. (Lowly BooksBeth vs. the Giller panel? So be it. Every reader is entitled to an opinion.)

Why the like and not love? No doubt stems from my personality, my approach to life. I could not empathize with the main character. I found him too reticent, too distant and too detached amidst the sadness surrounding him. Having said that, the story itself kept me going which is a testament to Wright’s skill with language, themes, settings and characterization. And while James Hillyer may have frustrated me, he also fascinated me.

"October effortlessly weaves a haunting coming-of-age story set in World War II Quebec with a contemporary portrait of a man still searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

In England to see his daughter, Susan, who is gravely ill, James Hillyer, a retired professor of Victorian literature, encounters by chance a man he once knew as a boy. Gabriel Fontaine, a rich and attractive American he met one summer during the war, when he was sent on a holiday to the GaspĂ©, is a mercurial figure, badly crippled by polio. Now, at this random meeting over six decades later…James is asked by Gabriel to accompany him on a final, unthinkable journey. At last, James begins to see that all beginnings and endings are inexorably linked."

This is a man who is surrounded by death, who lost his wife to the same disease now afflicting his daughter, whose friend from childhood is dying and yet I was never able to capture a true sense of his anguish. He seemed almost aloof, removed from it all (although in all fairness I must note there was a scene where he wept with his daughter). James was an observer of life as a child – perhaps he simply never learned how to become immersed in life, never wanted to.

I could certainly relate to the theme of the past’s powerful hold upon our present lives, how the two are “inexorably linked.” I’ve spent a great deal of my life attempting to integrate my past with my present – come to terms with the “me” that has been created from that past.

So, point well taken, Mr. Wright. Your message hit home. My own baggage from the life I have led influenced my reaction to your main character – who is still struggling with the events of his life.

While dealing with his difficult present, James relives his past. Reflecting upon the life and experiences he had as a young boy, he asks,

“But what if many things we encounter have no answers? What if they just remain unsolved mysteries?”

“So many things then seemed indeterminate, stories without endings… I think I sensed, in a small way at least, that such mysteries lay at the heart of everything that would matter in my life.”

Yes, they do. Those mysteries James was unable to fathom as a young boy are with him still. Life is not a series of stories with distinct beginnings and endings. It is a never-ending flow, the stories we live pile one on top of the other, creating who and what we are. The challenge and the mystery of life lie within discovering and coming to terms with that creation.

Whether an already existing fan of Wright’s or a newcomer to his work, October will not disappoint you – it is definitely a worthy Giller nominee.


hip_ragdoll said...

You know, I can understand how you found James Hillyer distant, and that it might have put you off of him. I think that's the main reason why I enjoyed this book so much -- that he embodies a Victorian man plunked in a modern world without the emotional ability to truly come to terms with his past, present or future.

I am glad you liked the book overall too, as I've said many times it's one of my favourites in terms of new Canadian literature that's come out this fall.

Shari said...

Wow. Good review. I liked how you related to it and your take on it. Mostly because of your own personal life.

Another book to earmark. :)

oreneta said...

The only book by him that I HAVE read is Clara Cahlahn (sp?) maybe now I'll give him another shot...thanks for the review

Sherry said...

Thanks for the in-depth, articulate review Beth. I haven't read this one yet but am intrigued now. You vs. Giller? I often take the word of the "average" reader over "the authoritative voice", perhaps because we are looking for something different than a committee awarding a prize.
I was also taken with your views and comments about our life experiences, our past merging with our present to our future. Very insightful.

Diesel said...

Sounds interesting. I have to admit I've never read any of his books. I will go with your opinion over some snooty panel, though.

Anonymous said...

Beth, I appreciate you putting so much thought and so much of yourself into this review of October. I have never heard of this author, but now I am interested in checking the book out. So far the books you have suggested have been excellent! Thanks for taking the time to do this, and for your very thought provoking insights. Very good points, sure made me think.

Beth said...

I really did enjoy the book - the fact that James Hillyer evoked such strong feelings in me shows what a marvelous writer Wright is.

Yes, I did get fairly personal with this review. Rather strange....

I loved Clara Callan!

It's a great book simply because it got me thinking - not only about the story itself but my life.

He's a Canadian writer - an excellent one. Give him a try!

Can you tell I struggled with this review? Guess that's why there's so much "me" in it!

Gary said...

I haven't got to it yet, but it's on the list and you've piqued me. I've had a similar reaction to Frances Itani's work. I like it but didn't get the award winning thrill.

Awards are like sign posts - probably good to turn here. But not the only road to follow...

Anonymous said...

I loved Clara Callan and so far am about 60 pages into the book.
Yes,he's quite etached but that the facination of literature.
We can give and take our own take on situations and people.
We as people react to different things in life differently.
We all havea different set of chromosomes in our beings.
Having said that,I will take Wright over Ondatje with his last novel.
Ondatje fails to give closure to his characters in his last book.
October hada great premsie and whatever the final takeat the final juncture,I sure am enjoying the ride.
Better than Clara Callan,I would dar say now.

Beth said...

I like your view regarding awards (or award nominees) - just one of many guides to follow when deciding upon a book.

Glad to hear you're enjoying the book - and that you loved Clara Callan.