Set a year after the end of the First World War, Frances Itani’s Tell, which has been longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a portrait of two small-town Ontario marriages left rudderless by loss.
Kenan has returned from the war to his hometown of Deseronto literally half the man he used to be: he has just one working arm and eye and half his face is “sealed by rippled scars.” Of course, that’s just what you can see. Kenan is also suffering classic—some might say clichéd—symptoms of shellshock: he doesn’t speak of the war, never goes outside, stares mutely off into the distance, shouts out in his sleep. Though an unanticipated letter from Hugh, a friend from the war who’s recovering from TB at an east coast sanatorium, buoys his spirits, Kenan nevertheless finds his thoughts turning, guiltily and often, to the less happy fate of their mutual friend Bill on a French battlefield.
After enduring months of Kenan’s solitary, uncommunicative behaviour, his wife Tress (whose sister Grania was the heroine of Itani’s breakout 2003 novel Deafening) is losing hope and patience. She confides her feelings to her aunt Maggie, who lives childlessly with her husband Am in an apartment sandwiched between the town’s post office and the clock tower where Am works as caretaker. Maggie lends Tress a sympathetic ear, but stops short of discussing the unspoken weight that’s been bearing down on her own 25-year marriage and that’s recently driven her into the arms of Lukas, the disconsolate director of the local choral society.
Withheld until the final pages, Maggie and Am’s secret is treated as the novel’s “big reveal.” Once we learn it, however, the real question turns from what to why. Not only do we picture a far direr scenario than turns out to be the case, Itani’s strategy makes her own job unnecessarily difficult by requiring us to accept both that the entire town has for decades hoarded a not-very-shocking secret and, less fathomably, that Maggie and Am have managed to banish the specifics of it from their actual thoughts (which we access through a close-third-person narration). As a result, we get awkward, generalized cogitations about memory as metaphorical ninja: “Memory. It whipped [Am] around in all directions.” Or angry mob: “Memories tried to crowd forward, but once more Maggie pushed them back.” When our secret’s due date finally arrives, moreover, all narrative hell breaks loose: Maggie and Am, unbeknownst to each other, spilling the beans to two different people on exactly the same day.
Itani goes to the same kinds of acrobatic lengths to avoid revealing what European country (“Sad. Always sad”) Lukas is from. Initially, the rationale for this is that it’s a place “So far away, Maggie could not imagine his part of the world.” (Wouldn’t four years of world war have, if not a shrinking effect on European geography, then at least a familiarizing one?) Maggie’s self-inflicted obscurantism soon reaches semi-comic levels. At one point, Lukas mentions that he lived on a farm: “Where? She wanted to ask. And then she thought, What difference does it make? I wouldn’t know the place anyway.” Later, another reference to his unnamed country elicits the same defeatist chain of thought: “Which country? Maggie wanted to know. Which town? But she did not ask. What did it matter?”
Kenan displays a similar lack of curiosity about something you’d think he’d care about: his own roots. Adopted at birth and raised by the owner of the local welding shop, a man he calls “Uncle Oak,” we’re surprised to learn Kenan has never asked about the identity of his birth parents. When he finally does (at age 24), Oak responds by procuring a photograph of his birth mother. See what happens when you ask? The question of whether an unmarried male non-relative adopting a baby on his own ever raised any flags with locals is, however, not addressed.
Itani’s prose is genteel almost to the point of moribundity. Long, detailed descriptions of building an outdoor ice rink, twice repeated, include self-evident statements like “The length of the skating season was unpredictable because it was dependent on weather.” The morning after a passionate, life-altering tryst with Lukas (“her entire body knew there was nothing ordinary about this day”), Maggie’s thoughts abruptly turn, for two full paragraphs, to making grape jelly: “One time she made her own raisins, but that had been too much bother.”
This is Itani’s fifteenth book, yet as historical fiction it feels like entry-level stuff (if Tell had been marketed as young adult fiction I would feel quite differently about it). Most readers over 25, however, know something about marriage and the reasons it unravels; know a bit about war and its devastating psychological effects. And that’s the problem: Tell has come into a world where Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway and or even, for that matter, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds already exist. Itani doesn’t have to raise the shiny, solid bar set by these books, but she does need to acknowledge it’s there.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor