Frances Itani’s previous book, the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Tell, ends with the clandestine adoption of a baby girl called Hanorah. In Itani’s new novel, Hanorah is all grown up and determined to discover for herself the identities of her biological parents. Tell is set in the interwar period, and That’s My Baby takes us into the Second World War and beyond.
Readers of the previous volume will experience That’s My Baby in a very different way from those entirely ignorant of Hanorah’s background. Itani constructs her novel in the manner of a detective story, but those familiar with Tell know from the beginning the solution to Hanorah’s quest, while the rest will be kept guessing until the very end.
On the way to that ending, Itani presents two subplots that occupy considerable space. The first focuses on Hanorah’s attempts to care for her cousin Billie, who suffers from dementia. The second concerns a biography Hanorah is writing about a deceased artist named Mariah. All the plotlines come together in a scene that involves the opening of a trunk. The novel’s structure is reminiscent of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which incorporates seemingly unrelated subplots that suddenly collide in a climactic sequence on a basketball court.
Itani’s prose is seductive, but never flowery, drawing us effectively into Hanorah’s situation. The characters are well crafted, and the author’s detailed understanding of dementia renders Billie’s character highly credible.
That being said, readers may grow impatient with the new book’s lengthy subplots about Billie and Mariah. They often function as distractions that pad the story rather than further it. And some plot coincidences stretch credulity. Despite its problems, That’s My Baby is a satisfying offering by an author who never fails to delight.