Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.
The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.
I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community. Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.
Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on just a single story.
Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.
Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite his wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.
The second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choirmaster Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.
While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.
Not much happens plot-wise except to move toward the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.
Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.
I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.
Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.
I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January 2015.