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October Crisis sets scene in Irena Karafilly’s The House on Selkirk Ave.

 

Related: McGill student days sparks themes in novel

the house on selkirk avenueWhere were you during the October Crisis of 1970? It was a period that no Montrealer can easily forget.

After a cell of the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) had kidnapped British trade commissioner James Earl Cross, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties, and enabling the arrest and confinement of 497 Canadians. Most were never charged.

The government said it was responding to an apprehended insurrection. People were terrified.

For several Montreal writers, the period provides a ripe setting for their creative imagination, the latest being The House on Selkirk Avenue by Montreal-based Irena Karafilly.

In the opening chapters, the central character, Kate Thuringer, recalls her youth and, a one-night stand on a train to Paris. She has a university degree in English and music, speaks three languages, and is hoping to improve her French with a stay in the French capital. She is thinking about a medical intern’s marriage proposal. Does she love him? Kate doesn’t even pose the question.

Like many of us at that time, ending our teen years, Kate is floating in a sea of uncertainty. What happens on the train is a portent of events she is unable to control.

And always, ever-present in this carefully crafted and engaging story, are regrets, the what-if’s that can overtake one’s thoughts during mid-life reflections. As the narrative unfolds, we follow Kate through the twists that her life takes as a result of encounters that seem to be innocuous.

This is not a political book. The October crisis comes into play because of Kate’s relationship with a Québécois whose involvement leading to his arrest, like most of those detained in real life, turns out to be peripheral. But it had a profound effect on his relationship with Kate. His name is Guillaume. He reappears when Kate returns to Montreal to visit her daughter Megan, studying at McGill. Kate is a photographer at the Edmonton Journal, almost 50, and is married to a doctor, whom we never meet but only hear about in her thoughts. Most of the narrative is set in
midtown Montreal, and readers will enjoy walking with the protagonist as she navigates the streets that are still there, and back to the times when Guillaume, a talented cellist from a poor east-end family, was part of Kate’s life.

What actually happened to Guillaume and their love remains a mystery. There was a letter. What did it say?
This is at the heart of the story, and it makes for a good — at times compelling — read as we slowly get to know Kate and her times, flashing back and forth in time until past and present collide.

But beyond the dramatic development is that yearning for our lost youth, and what could have been, that will stir memories in all of us.

The House on Selkirk Avenue, Guernica Editions, 301 pages, $20, is available in Montreal bookstores.

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