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Slow and steady: Small-town postwar novel moves at its own perfect pace

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Frances Itani's latest takes readers back to the town of Deseronto, the setting of her 2003 debut, Deafening.

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Frances Itani's latest takes readers back to the town of Deseronto, the setting of her 2003 debut, Deafening.

Frances Itani's new novel, simply titled Tell, once again illustrates that good storytelling is not dead.

Since before the 2003 release of her outstanding debut novel Deafening, this Ottawa fiction writer has offered readers a regular feast of finely written, meticulously researched material. Children's books, short stories, poetry, the highly acclaimed novels Remembering the Bones (2007) and Requiem (2011), and more than a dozen other published works: Itani has used her eye for detail and her skill with narrative to draw us into the very souls of her characters.

Tell takes us to 1919 and the small Ontario town of Deseronto, where young Kenan Oak is attempting to re-adjust to life as a scarred, half-blind veteran of the First World War. The setting is a return to the town featured in Deafening, and a revisiting of some of its resident characters.

As in much of Itani's work, this novel has its roots in war. Indeed, in her work, war can often be felt as a discrete character -- whether a physical enemy or simply memory, war makes an impact. When Kegan finally ventures into town, he attempts to recapture the life he once knew, but wonders whether anything familiar was left that "had not been altered by war."

A three-time winner of the CBC Literary Awards for her short stories, Itani garnered the 2004 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Deafening, which was also short-listed for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the William Saroyan International Award. Her story collection Poached Egg on Toast won the 2005 CAA Jubilee Award for Best Book of Canadian Stories, and her novel Remembering the Bones, a bestseller, was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize.

Despite the accolades, Itani's writing through the years has been criticized by some for offering too little passion, too little emotion and too little drama. While Tell does not present the legendary feats of some larger-than-life hero or employ the tell-all tone of the modern generation, it develops its own rhythm; precisely the kind of rhythm one would expect to find in a small early 20th-century Canadian town wading through the emotional aftermath of a devastating world war.

With the lyrical prose and unhurried pace reminiscent of Jane Urquhart's The Whirlpool, Itani clearly conveys the quiet desperation experienced by memorable characters: Kenan's feelings of fear and helplessness as he stumbles through town with his war-battered body, and the silent grief and perseverance of Tress, his young wife, as she tries to regain her life with the emotional stranger her husband has become.

There is Am, Tress's uncle and the town-hall caretaker, who spends his days playing solitaire and trying to ignore pains that signal a serious illness. And Maggie, Am's wife, who finds his steadiness, his predictability, playing on her nerves: "She could not free herself from the weight of him."

This is a wonderful story, with a richly detailed sense of time and place, and compelling characters who, ultimately, all have secrets to tell.

 

Angela Narth is a Winnipeg author and literary reviewer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 6:19 AM CDT: Formatting.

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