Review: Frances Itani’s Tell

Truthful WWI fiction

TELL by Frances Itani (HarperCollins), 318 pages, $22.99 paper. Rating: NNN

In Deseronto, a small town in Ontario, residents prepare for the holiday season, skate on the outdoor rink and read their very influential daily paper.

But life is not going on as usual. This is post-WWI Deseronto, and in Frances Itani’s Giller-shortlisted novel, Tell, many of the townsfolk have been traumatized by the recent war, including Kenan, who’s lost the use of one arm and bears very visible scars on his face.

He’s not the only one coping with terrible anxiety. Others, like long-time couple Am and Maggie, are guarding decades-old secrets or taking personal risks in order to change their lives.

At the heart of the story is Kenan, for whom just going out of his house demands huge effort. He can barely talk to his wife, Tress, let alone share any real intimacy. Soon he finds a new freedom – and an outlet for his anger – at the rink where he and the clock tower caretaker, Am, forge a link based on their fear of losing everything. Am’s wife, the soprano Maggie, is developing an attraction to Luc, the new choir conductor, as they prepare for the annual New Year’s concert.

Itani’s lucid prose – aided by obviously intense research – vividly recreates small-town life in 1919, including quotidian details about how to build an outdoor rink or the kinds of do-it-yourself Christmas gifts people fashioned with sparse materials.

But her talent goes beyond faithful recreation she has the gift of emotional authenticity. You struggle with every step Kenan takes and feel the surge of exhilaration Maggie experiences when Luc awakens her sagging spirit. 

But in the end, Tell is never a total grabber. The characters are all very likeable, which leaches the story of tension, and though they experience plenty of pain, you feel as if Itani is stopping short of delving too deeply into their devastation.

It’s a good read, but almost too gentle.     SUSAN G. COLE | @susangcole

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