Tell, by Frances Itani

by

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

It is November, 1919 and the town of Deseronto, Ontario on the Bay of Quinte at the eastern end of Lake Ontario has just held its first Remembrance Day ceremony “to thank Desoronto’s red-blooded manhood for its sacrifices, its heroism and its gallantry on the far-flung battlefield”.

Kenan Oak is one of those being honored, but he has not attended the ceremony. Indeed, since returning from the war as one of the “walking wounded”, Kenan has not left the house he shares with wife Tress, save to occasionally sit on the veranda and contemplate the bay. Kenan was witness to the devastating gas attacks that both killed and permanently damaged soldiers, but that is not what ended his war. Rather, it was an explosion that left him with a useless arm, a blind left eye and a badly-scarred face.

He may be a recluse, but without being consciously deliberate about it he has mapped his own plan for recovery and re-entry into the real world. He does receive a few family visitors at home, most importantly his Uncle Am who has managed to find Kenan employment as a home-based bookkeeper for the local pharmacist. And he is beginning to explore and expand the limits of his restricted mobility — his legs are fine but, one-armed, one-eyed and mentally shaken, Kenan is very careful about just what risks he is willing to take.

He was in the parlour now, the soles of his shoes pacing a thin carpet Tress had laid over the floor. He took no step for granted; each was slow and considered. Feet could be swallowed by bottomless holes. Had he not watched men his own age swallowed by sinkholes? He had. He carried on, reached out with right hand, right arm. He felt for familiar objects as he began to trace a known sequence through his narrow house.

He did this only when Tress was out, only when he was certain that she would be away for hours, working in the dining room of her parents’ hotel at the other end of Main Street. If she were to witness the treks he made through the house with his good eye closed, she would think he was crazed by war. No, that was unfair. Tress wanted to bring him back from the darkness that held him down. She had not given up, nor was she likely to. Or so he told himself.

That excerpt comes from the opening chapter of Tell and, after the author has briefly ventured into explanations of Kenan’s history as a youth and his war experience, the young man ventures from the house for the first time since returning from the war. He wants no part of meeting people, so he turns away from town and follows a path he remembers well from his youth (“Kenan knew every rock, root and shrub”). The excursion is one of what will be a series of tipping points that frame his hopes for recovery.

On that initial excursion, Kenan avoids contact with anyone else, but he has been observed — by his Uncle Am, who is sitting in his retreat at the top of the clock tower in the three-storey post office building where he is superintendent, handyman and resident (he and his wife Maggie live in the third floor apartment of the building).

So. The boy was finally out in the open. First time since he’d come home from the war. Am still thought of him as a boy. Kenan was in his mid-twenties compared to Am’s fiftieth birthday coming up. Because Am was related — his niece Tress had married Kenan just before the war — he was one of the few permitted to visit after the boy had returned home.

Kenan had never objected to Am’s presence. During the early months, Kenan hadn’t spoken at all. The two men sat in the glassed-in back veranda, often on a Sunday afternoon, side by side in wicker chairs arranged to face the bay. The silence was not uncomfortable. When Am spoke, it was to talk about boats on the water, who owned which, who drifted over from Napanee, who was out on a Sunday excursion, who had caught the biggest walleye or bullhead that week, who was unlucky enough to be bailing water from a leaky-bottomed boat.

A few posts back, in a review of Niall Williams’ History of the Rain, I described it as an “Irish village” novel in the tradition of authors like John McGahern, Colm Toibin and others. Tell is very much a Canadian version of the genre, although with a distinct difference from most other Canadian examples — there is no harsh climate or brutal nature in this novel, just a collection of ordinary people trying to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war. Author Itani highlights that “village” character by including news briefs from the Deseronto Post as one-page chapter breaks.

Her story unfolds with slow deliberation but eventually evolves into two parallel (but contrasting) narratives.

The first is that of Kenan and Tress, dealt that cruel blow of wartime injury but both in their own way determined to somehow build a new life together. The progress they make comes tentatively, but it is still touching.

The second thread, which becomes more prominent as the novel unfolds, is the story of Am and Maggie. If the war has suddenly altered the young couple’s life together, Am and Maggie’s relationship is one that has been withering over the years through boredom and ennui. The two have pretty much stopped talking to each other, except for commonplace daily exchanges. While Am retreats to his clock tower aerie, Maggie has found a revived life in a new friend, Zel, and her participation in the village choral society. Maggie has always had a musical bent — the newly-arrived choral society director Lukas (himself a different kind of war refugee) has decided that she will feature as a soloist in the village choral concert. A quiet, withdrawn woman, Maggie has never before faced that kind of public attention.

The challenge with “village” novels, be they Irish or Canadian, is maintaining reader interest, given that almost by definition not much happens in a rural village. Authors need to turn ordinary people into three-dimensional characters because it is the people, not events, who are the heart of the book.

For this reader, Itani succeeded superbly in delivering on that challenge. Kenan, Tress, Am and Maggie all come fully to life — as do their relationships as couples, the way the four relate to each other and the roles they each play in the community where they live. As the novel proceeded, I felt more and more a part of the Deseronto community where these four live.

As I noted earlier, Tell is different from most “Canadian village” novels because Mother Nature in this book is a tame, far from hostile, creature — indeed, her major contribution here is freezing the bay so the town can shovel off a skating rink that serves as the central social gathering point for the winter. Any Canadian who grew up skating on the frozen local pond (as I did) will find those passages taking them back to their own childhood.

I have not been as keen as others on Itani’s previous works (Deafening attracted much critical praise, but fell flat with me) but I salute the Real Giller Jury for including this one on the longlist because without that recognition I probably would have skipped it. I suspect it is too delicate and fragile to be the Prize winner, but I would be quite happy to see it advance to the short list. In the final analysis, it is an engaging and heart-warming read — the characters may be “ordinary” in both their strengths and flaws, but they are creations whom I am delighted to have met.

8 Responses to “Tell, by Frances Itani”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I am so glad to read this positive review. I saw a copy at the library and it just looked so good (and I also struggle with many Canadian village novels). However I knew I would not have time to squeeze it in before it would be due again so I made a mental note. Sounds like it is worth adding to the “list” regardless of whether or not it gets the Giller nod. Honestly why can’t they just stagger the book award season?

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I suspect it helps to be in a reflective frame of mind when you pick it up, but I certainly found it worth the effort.

      As for prize timing, we readers just have to accept that a primary goal of prizes is to sell books — and fall tends to be book-selling season. I hope this one ends up on a number of Christmas lists because it deserves attention.

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  2. Guy Savage Says:

    I’m not sure that I’d like this as I’ve read a number of WWI books (and the aftermath) this year, so I may be maxed out on the subject.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was worried when I started it that I would experience “war novel” fatigue — and I didn’t. Having said that, there are more “war” memories in the book than I have indicated in my review in both Kenan’s remembrances and contact he has with mates from the war.

      On the other hand, what really engaged my interest was the contrast between the way that Kenan and Tress positively dealt with their challenge while Am and Maggie managed (for the most part) to make their self-created one worse.

      I should also note there is a particularly Canadian angle (well, we share it with Australia and New Zealand) to WWI fiction. Great Britain still controlled the foreign policy of the Old Dominions then, so it was London that decided we would join the war. And the troops from all three nations were pretty much used as fodder throughout the conflict. Itani doesn’t use that directly in the novel, but aspects of it are always there in the background.

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  3. David Says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this one even more having read your review. I was going to start it last week, but chanced upon a review online that indicated it is a loose sequel to ‘Deafening’ (I think Kenan and Tress both feature in the earlier book?) so, as I haven’t read that, I’m going to get to that one first, as I did last year with ‘The Quiet Twin’/’The Crooked Maid’. Though I might leave it a week or two as I’m currently reading about a blind girl in WW2 (Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, which so far I’m finding overrated), so a deaf girl in WW1 straight after might be a bit much!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Deafening is of the same period and place — Grania, the deaf girl, is Tress’s sister — but I would not describe this as a sequel. I don’t remember it particularly well and did find that Tell stood on its own just fine.

      What my limited memory of it does say is that it also explores the idea of “community” where individual hardships (that pale against the idea of the Great War) are a greater challenge than the bigger context. I think I missed a lot of that when I first read Deafening — I should reread it because this one certainly impressed me with the way that Itani developed her characters.

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  4. Penny Says:

    I read it as well (and am happy to see it advance this morning to the shortlist) and very much enjoyed. I disagree with the Globe and Mail review (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/frances-itanis-tell-a-portrait-of-two-marriages-left-rudderless-by-loss/article20913482/#dashboard/follows/) and found the quiet and gentle prose to be quite lovely. I do not suspect it will take the prize, but I would recommend to anyone looking for a lovely, quiet read to spend their afternoon nestled in by the fire enjoying.

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