Ronald Charles Epstein is a Toronto-based freelance writer and published poet.
Acclaimed novelist Richard B. Wright has led a double life from 1973 to 2001. He supported his family by teaching at Ridley College, a private school in St. Catharines, Ontario, and enhanced his reputation with The Age of Longing and other works. He later won the Governor General’s Award with Clara Callan.
The now-retired teacher’s latest novel, October, deals with former University of Toronto professor James Hillyer’s efforts to cope with a three-ring circus of mortality and memory. Hillyer visits Oxfordshire, England, to comfort Susan, his terminally ill daughter. During a stopover in London on his way home he meets Gabriel Fontaine, a wealthy American childhood acquaintance who requests his company for a special visit to Zurich. That encounter releases memories of 1944, when they both vacationed in Percé, a famous Quebec resort.
Hillyer, the sole narrator, is more than a perceptive protagonist. When he reads his morning newspaper, he refers to it as “a version of world events as reported by those who labour for the International Herald Tribune.” Any pomposity can be attributed to the character, not its creator. This does not mean that Hillyer can be dismissed as the author’s handy scapegoat. His knowledge means that he can compare the 1940s to the present in a perceptive manner. His elder’s wisdom enables him to judge his youthful emotions. In other words, the audience gets a trustworthy narrator.
Hillyer recalls his paraplegic companion’s affair with Odette Huard, a poor young Québécoise chambermaid. Inevitably, he impregnates her, to no one’s surprise. Wright’s readers are misled by a meticulously crafted plot and trip over a cliché. That situation may be implicitly acknowledged by the publisher’s addition of “P.S.,” a promotional concluding section. The responsible parties get what they deserve by merely being “Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.”