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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review of TELL by Frances Itani

Tell is the book chosen for 2016 SDG Reads so I read it in anticipation of the author event this evening. 

3 Stars 
Tell by [Itani, Frances]Tell is a follow-up to Deafening, Itani’s best-known, award-winning novel.  I read this latter book about a dozen years ago when it was first published; at that time I was not writing reviews, but I do remember enjoying it very much.  Tell I did not find as emotionally compelling.

This novel focuses on Tress (the sister of Grania, the protagonist in 
Deafeningand her husband Kenan; their story is interwoven with that of Maggie and Am (Tress and Grania’s aunt and uncle).  Kenan has returned from fighting in World War I; he has been wounded body, heart and soul and has difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and he and Tress seem to be drifting apart.  Maggie and Am are also experiencing marital problems; a tragedy in their past, which they refuse to discuss, is resulting in emotional distancing and Maggie finds herself drawn to Lukas, a European musician who has recently moved to Deseronto. 

The theme of the novel is the harm that is caused by secrets, the stories we should tell but don’t.  The epigraph hints at this theme:  “But isn’t that why we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads?”  Kenan is unable to speak when he first returns from the front, and even when he begins to speak, he doesn’t open up about his war experiences.  Maggie and Am do not speak of their sorrow and their marriage is fracturing as a consequence; Am says, “’we made the mistake of living with the sorrow pushed under like a deadhead, a hidden threat under water.  We did that instead of dragging it up into views so we could talk about it, try to make ourselves better.’”   Kenan’s adoptive father never spoke of Kenan’s biological mother and Kenan knows nothing about her. 

The book is very slow-moving at the beginning, and I kept wanting something to happen.  At times the plot seems more like a series of disjointed anecdotes, some of which seem just to emphasize Itani’s research of the time period.  Do we really need to know all the details of making grape jelly or building an outdoor skating rink?  When the revelations do come, they come quickly.  Is it logical that both Am and Maggie choose to speak on the same day?

There are a couple of other issues with the book.  I grew up in a small town so I know how everyone knows everyone’s business, so I find it difficult to believe that everyone in the community never spoke of Kenan’s adoption by a single man or Am and Maggie’s secret, a secret which is not risqué, just sad.  Even Kenan asks, “How was it possible for an entire community to maintain silence?  . . . The community had created a grim kind of solidarity. . . . Still it was almost impossible to believe that no one had ever spoken . . . ” The author does try to convince, however;  the snow wall near the rink to keep skaters from venturing unto risky, uncertain ice symbolizes the townspeople’s silence; when Kenan and Am attack that wall, community members become upset.  Unfortunately, I’m not convinced an entire town would collude in keeping a secret for decades; there are always town gossips.

Then there’s the ending.  After the slow pacing, everything happens too quickly.  An entire year is skipped, and though the reader has known Maggie’s thoughts intimately, all of a sudden we learn of her actions secondhand.  Considering Maggie’s secret, her devastating loss, her decision at the end seems unrealistic. 

The upshot is that I did not find this novel as interesting or emotionally impactful as I remember Deafening being.