October by Richard B. Wright (Harper Collins 2007)
I am always surprised by how much I enjoy Richard B. Wright’s work. It all seems so simple and straight-forward in the telling. October is no exception. The plot is uncomplicated; the language, unadorned. And yet the story resonates long after you put it down.
While travelling in England to visit his cancer-stricken daughter, retired professor James Hillyer chances upon an acquaintance whom he has not encountered in more than sixty years. Gabriel Fontaine, once a sixteen-year-old boy befriended by James during a summer vacation, is now aged and infirm – just as close to death’s door as his own daughter. Friendless, but for a hired nurse, Gabriel requests of James something so intimate and bizarre that it would tax even the thickest of friendships. However, as it stands, the two men were never more than acquaintances of proximity who could little more than tolerate each other’s company at times. And James finds that even now, sixty years after the fact, he is still jealous and bitter over the young woman Gabriel won from him that fateful summer.
Nonetheless, compassion carries the day, and less than forty-eight hours later, James finds himself on a flight to Switzerland in the company Gabriel and his young nurse.
Part love story, and part meditation on mortality, October shifts back and forth between the present and the past, from England and Switzerland to the summer of 1944 in the coastal village of Perce, Quebec.
The secret to Wright’s success in this novel is his economy of language, and the concision with which he is able to sketch the most believable and psychologically complex characters at that exact moment in their lives when they are grappling with humanity’s most important mysteries. In October, Wright demonstrates a keen grasp of the complicated emotions within any relationship, and he uses this understanding to weave a story that is not only believable, but, in fact, inevitable.
October is a case of all the right words in all the right places.