I first read MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night in a first year Canuck Lit course back in university. It was a surprise, a Canadian response to that time (the thirties) that was covered by such heavyweights (and personal favourites) as Hemingway, Steinbeck and Orwell. No, it wasn't the greatest book I read that course - that honour would go to Laurence's The Diviners - but it was one that stuck with me over time.
Rereading this book, I went back and forth over how much I liked it. While it was a good read, there were only certain times when I felt the same magic that thrilled me the first time through. Perhaps, it's just that my tastes have changed. I don't know.
Don't get me wrong. It's still a book worth reading. I think I went back to it expecting it to be more about the times and the Spanish Civil War. What I found instead was a work that spent just as much time meditating of love and aging.
The story is written in flashbacks from the fifties. It revolves around George Stewart and his relationships with Catherine Carey, the girl and woman he grew up with and eventually married, and Jerome Martell, the doctor who married Catherine first and then followed his conscience to war in Spain. This triangle is complicated by the fact that Catherine has a rheumatic heart, a disability that both hinders and propels Catherine through life.
Over a decade after he has been reported dead in Nazi Germany, Jerome returns to Montreal. That's how the story starts. There is more - lots more - but that is for you to find out.
One thing I liked about this book the first time through and that I like even more now is that this is a book not of the ones who went to war, but of the ones who stayed home. The ones who could not or would not make the leap from rhetoric to action. We get so used to war novels being about great daring men and their battles that it's nice to see one that deals with the people who did not go.
But, as I said earlier, this is a book about love and loss more than one of war. It is also a very Canadian novel, painting a portrait of life in Montreal that is all but lost now.
I was reading an interesting interview with Barry Callaghan the other day and he said that MacLennan basically disappeared when he died. Sadly, he may be right. I mean, how many people really know about MacLennan aside from seeing his name in the title of a Tragically Hip song?
I hope not. He is far too good a writer to be forgotten so quickly.