Return to Memories
by Timothy Niedermann
Originally published in March 2017, Ottawa Review of Books
“The House on Selkirk Avenue” by Irena Karafilly
Guernica Editions, $20.00
It is late September 1998, and Kate is back in Montreal to help her daughter, Megan, move in to the “student ghetto” next to McGill University, where Megan is a freshman. Kate grew up in Westmount, but moved to Edmonton with her doctor husband many years ago. There she became a professional photographer. She has only been back to Montreal once before—ten years earlier—to collect her aged mother, in full Alzheimer’s decline, and take her back to Alberta to live. That visit was short. But this time she lingers. She will turn fifty soon, and this is bothering her. She feels old.
As Kate does errands for her daughter, memories from her youth start to wash over her. She recalls her Westmount childhood, the early death of her father, her difficult relationship with her twin sister. Then, on a whim, she revisits a small Victorian greystone on Selkirk Avenue, a short cul-de-sac near where Côte-des-Neiges meets Sherbrooke. In those days, both streets were Anglicized as “road.” They are “chemin” and “rue” now. It was in this house, in 1970, where she would visit her first serious boyfriend, Guillaume, on weekends.
Things have changed. Guillaume’s apartment has been combined with the apartment of another old friend and is now a condominium. It is currently occupied by Antonia Offe, an actress who, though nearing seventy, is excited about having just gotten a plum role in a new play. Despite the renovation and upscale furnishings, however, Kate finds the place cold, that is, except for the cat, Otto. The cat brings back memories of Pablo, Kate’s cat from so long ago, which escaped out the window at Guillaume’s one day and never returned.
The days pass, and Guillaume begins to loom larger in her mind. Both musicians, they had met at the Youth Orchestra of Montreal and spent every available moment together. Then, suddenly, the October Crisis of 1970* overwhelmed them. The War Measures Act polarized Quebec society, Montreal looked like a police state, and all francophones felt the taint of suspicion—including Guillaume, who was arrested and harshly interrogated. Their relationship, which had been joyful, intense, and all consuming, was ended abruptly by him. Politics, he said. She never saw him again. And while the country was eventually able to recover, her life may not have. She’s not sure.
Kate keeps prolonging her stay. She makes up reasons, but there is something else working at her. And as September turns into another October, she reflects upon her past. Bits of memory, bits of loss. Like photographs, her past had seemed to her to be frozen moments. Unchanging. But of course nothing is the same as it was. Decisions made, some clearly good or bad in retrospect. Others merely beg the question: What if she had decided differently?
The biggest “What if?” is Guillaume. Her musings begin to revolve around this one particular loss, and the consequent events in her life. What had become of him? What if she bumps into him at Ludvig’s Music Shop after all these years?
The House on Selkirk Avenue is a reflection upon many things—aging, memory, the unpredictable and uncontrollable ways life is directed and changed, regret. Bestselling author Irena Karafilly (The Captive Sun) has chosen a moment in time both dramatic and symbolic to create multiple resonances as she slowly drops each of Kate’s memories into the deepening narrative. Karafilly has a distinctive, non-linear way of presenting pivotal scenes that illuminates Kate’s emotions and distress all the more fully. Don’t expect resolution from this book. That is not life. Rather, expect insight. We all remember. We all regret. We all have to live with our choices. And at times, we look back and question those choices. What Karafilly has done is to give us a window on the emotional turmoil that questioning brings.
* Reviewer’s Note: The 1970 Canadian October Crisis occurred when, in two different incidents, separatist radicals with the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped two men, Quebec Minister of Labor Pierre LaPorte and British Trade Commissioner James Cross. Laporte was killed, and Cross was only released after months of negotiations. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared what amounted to Marshall Law in Quebec under the War Measures Act, which gave rise to much criticism due the heavy-handed tactics against French Canadians by police during this period.
Timothy Niedermann is a professional editor, who over his career has dealt with a wide variety of subject matter—including international law and public policy as well as general fiction and non-fiction. He has also taught writing at Yale and McGill. A native of the state of Connecticut, Niedermann moved to Montreal in 1999. He reviews books for the Montreal Review of Books and the Ottawa Review of Books. A graduate of Kenyon College, Mr. Niedermann also attended the University of Freiburg in Germany and holds a J.D. from Case Western Reserve University Law School. He recently published his first novel, Wall of Dust, with Deux Voiliers Publishing.