It has been more than 10 years since Frances Itani found “overnight success” with her novel Deafening, after publishing several volumes of poetry and short stories over the course of the previous three decades. The accolades that accrued to that novel (it won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) cast Itani into the spotlight and cemented her standing as a titan of CanLit. The hype, and subsequent praise, was merited: set at the dawn of the First World War, Itani’s story of Grania O’Neill – left without her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever at the age of five – and the parallel narrative of Grania’s new husband, Jim, who endures the horrors of war at the Belgian front, is a nuanced, lyrical exploration of love, identity, and the astounding resilience of individuals in the face of devastation.
In her latest novel, Itani returns to these themes, and to the setting of Deseronto, Ontario. It is 1919, and the memory of war is still fresh for the townsfolk, many of whom lost sons or brothers, or themselves returned from “over there” and must figure out how to live in a world that no longer makes sense.
One of these young men is Kenan Oak, husband of Grania’s sister, Tress. Kenan, a secondary character in Deafening, is one of two main protagonists this time around. He has come back to Deseronto bearing the marks of war on his body and mind. Shrapnel has left one arm hanging limp and without feeling, one eye unseeing, and one side of his face a mess of scars. Suffering from what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder (known at the time as shell shock), Kenan isolates himself in his house, allowing only his adoptive father, Tress, and Tress’s Aunt Maggie and Uncle Am to see him in daylight.
While Itani is to be commended for taking her time in bringing the realities of war-related PTSD to life (including flashbacks, hallucinations, anxiety, depression, guilt, and paranoia), almost a third of the novel passes before Kenan’s storyline gains traction. It is not until the introduction (via letters) of Hugh, a young man from P.E.I. who shared Kenan’s experiences in the trenches, that the reader is drawn in. Earlier scenes give a sense of Kenan’s pain, and its effect on his marriage and overall quality of life, but it is through the letters that we are given a true sense of the damage he has suffered, and the tiny sparks of hope and healing that are beginning to surface.
Running parallel to Kenan’s storyline is that of Maggie and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Am. All is not well in their marriage. Itani drops hefty breadcrumbs on the path tracing the ruin of the relationship, though the tragedy that created the ever-widening chasm between husband and wife happened many years before and is not revealed until the book’s waning pages. In a story so obviously centred on long-held secrets and things unsaid, teasing out the details in this way is expected, but in this case unnecessary: knowing the couple’s history from the outset would not detract from the experience of following the disintegration of their marriage. And their story’s abrupt coda, delivered in the form of a letter to Maggie from her best friend, Zel, a year after the events of the novel, leaves the reader feeling short-changed.
Love, loss, and the delight of finding joy in unexpected places permeate Itani’s narrative. Tress and Kenan, despite a healthy physical relationship, are unable to conceive a child. “Barren, Kenan thought suddenly. We’re barren, the two of us. The word startled him. He had seen barren. Charred landscapes where nothing would grow.” Maggie and Am have no children, a fact that becomes important late in the novel, though the book’s opening scene hints at an unexpected twist in that storyline. The futility of war and the waste of human life are mentioned more than once.
Still, there is beauty in memories. The first scene in which the story feels as though it has some space to breathe involves Maggie, an unfulfilled singer who makes do with the church choir, recounting a chance encounter with the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba in Toronto during the war. Here, Itani’s gift for creating vividly drawn landscapes rife with emotion and bright with detail is on full display. The reader may not understand Maggie’s intense connection to music, but feels, with a visceral pull, her awe, admiration, and sheer happiness at sharing a moment with the diva. Likewise with Kenan’s breakthrough, when he sneaks out to the newly formed rink on the frozen Bay of Quinte and, for the first time in months, feels free.
Fans of Itani’s previous work will likely find little to fault in Tell. Though the story is slow going in the first third and lacks some of the intensity of Deafening (or Itani’s 2011 novel, Requiem), its blend of familiar, complex characters, resonant themes, and raw emotion results in a satisfying novel that will garner much admiration.