Tell by Frances Itani

Fiction — print. Black Cat, 2014. 321 pgs. Purchased.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize, Itani’s novel is set in a small Canadian village named Deseronto in Ontario following the Great War and reintroduces readers to the characters first presented in her 2003 novel, Deafening. That novel, apparently, focused on a deaf woman named Grania and her sister Tress (I haven’t read the novel); this novel focuses on Tress’ partner, Kenan, and the impact his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, or “shell-shocked” to use the phrase from the time) has on their relationship.

Kenan was badly injured in the war left blind in one eye with a lame arm and a horribly disfigured face, and he rarely ventures outside the couple’s house except late at night when he sneaks out to visit the skating pond he frequented as a child before the war. Unable to connect with her husband, Tress reaches out to her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Am in hopes the long married couple can provide insights on how to sustain a trouble marriage.

Yet Maggie and Am are largely living separate lives: Maggie has joined the town’s choral society growing increasingly closer to the choral director, Luc, while Am toils away alone in the clock tower above their apartment and neither of them has much of substance to say to the other.

Itani’s novel perfectly complimented the blizzard outside of my window — a cold setting, a dark secret serving as a proverbial cloud over the characters’ heads, a melancholic feeling permeating the story, and writing that demands to be slowly enjoyed. I enjoyed the descriptions and the setting feeling as though such descriptions helped underscore Kenan and Tress’ suffering, and it is often rare to find a novel willing to address experiences of men and women post-war.

It is always a bit off to me when prize juries select sequels for consideration as it almost demands a reader purchase both the first and the second novels and, invariably, sets up comparisons between the two. Why, after all, is the second novel more deserving of award consideration?

Having not read Deafening, I cannot actually answer this question, but I can speak to the odd experience of picking up a tale halfway through. In this case, World War I is clearly a large, cataclysmic break between the two novels and I am not entirely convinced you have to read the first novel to enjoy their second. The story seems to stand apart; Maggie and Am largely unaffected by Grania’s deafness.

But there is a certain amount of assumed understanding about the characters on the part of the writer, and I wonder if that affected how captivating the characters were to me. There always seemed to be an unconquerable distance between us robbing the revelation at the end of the novel of the emotional impact I imagine Itani intended.

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