Tell by Frances Itani
As we all heard on 10 November the winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize is Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, now moved to the top of my “to read” pile. I have to admit I was hoping the new Frances Itani novel Tell might be the award winner.
Frances Itani is best known for her novel Deafening published in 2003, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award and winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize that year.
Tell begins with a child – a baby – being placed into the arms of a young couple, now parents of a precious daughter – it is late fall, 1920.
Then we are taken back to 1919, one year earlier, and the beginning of the events that will, by the end of the novel, bring us back to the beginning. The story is set in Deseronto, a small Ontario town east of Belleville. We meet Kenan Oak, home a year now from the war in Europe, and his wife Tress.
Kenan has returned from the trenches a damaged man, blinded in one eye, with an arm he can no longer use, and traumatized by his experiences. It is Grania, Tress’s younger sister, who encourages Kenan to “speak” with her by using sign language to communicate. At first Kenan does not leave the house; he spends his time when Tress is not there discovering the space in which he lives. Slowly, at night and alone he leaves the house to walk, or to skate on the frozen lake.
Am, the boyhood friend of Kenan’s uncle, watches out for the young man, witnessing Kenan’s nocturnal explorations from the clock tower high above the town.
Am’s wife Maggie is exploring herself, singing with the local choral society and finding more and more a life of her own in this new post war world. We learn about a tragedy, and unresolved grief, that has both held together and separated Am and Maggie. Late in the novel we have Am telling the story to Kenan, as Maggie reveals her heart to Luc, a stranger recently arrived in town. Both Am and Maggie, finally able to tell someone else about their grief - this shared tragedy that has never mentioned, as if it had never existed.
Tell is a novel about the many things that are unspoken, for which there are no words, but are shared in other ways. Tress and Kenan are patient with each other, allowing time for their relationship to heal and to grow. In this year, after the war, with the loss of so many and so much, people are beginning to rebuild their lives, to look forward.
I was struck as I was reading by the slow simplicity of the story, a novel about complicated issues and difficult times laid out page by page gently, as each character moves toward the future and whatever it will bring.
Tell, one of the very worthy novels shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and a very good read.