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Requiem

by Frances Itani

In her third novel, Frances Itani turns her attention to the Second World War and to themes of marginalization, loneliness, grief, and memory. Requiem tells the story of Bin Okuma, a member of the 21,000 Japanese-
Canadians in B.C. interned following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The novel opens in 1997, five months after the sudden death of Bin’s wife, Lena. After learning that his biological father is dying in B.C., Bin leaves his home in Ottawa on a spur-of-the-moment road trip, taking little but his art supplies, his classical music tapes, and his hound, Basil. The novel bounces back and forth between Bin’s present-day travels and his memories of the makeshift community forged inside the internment camp, the awkward adjustments to life after his release, and the joys of building a new home.

Requiem is an exploration of the places history is stored: letters, art, music, literature, and the human body itself. It’s also an expertly crafted sketch of a sympathetic character’s vivid, complex, and subtle life. Scenes involving Bin’s encounter with racist townsfolk or the ritual that follows the cremation of a baby are recounted simply and with an artist’s eye for landscape and detail. The revelations in the final chapters are perhaps a little too neat in light of the novel’s persistent depiction of complicated family relationships, but thanks to the careful build-up, as tearjerkers, they don’t disappoint.

Itani includes nods to Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, the most famous novel about the internment of Japanese-Canadians, but in its own right, Requiem represents an important addition to the literature of this underrepresented period in Canadian history.