I suppose that’s the stuff we are made of, stories and journeys great or small, complete or incomplete, whatever gets passed to us down the line. (pp 286-287)
Frances Itani’s Tell picks up where Deafening ends, at the end of WW1. It is not so much a sequel as a continuation of life in Deseronto with the voices of different people coming to the forefront. This is the story of Grania O’Neill’s sister Tress and childhood friend Kenan (now married) and of her aunt and uncle, Maggie and Am. Two marriages struggling to deal with loss.
Kenan has returned from the war with serious injuries … a dead arm, a blind eye, a disfigured face and unseen wounds to his spirit. He keeps to himself, going out only at night. He can share his experiences only with a friend from the war. He also starts to question his origins and the circumstances of his adoption … surely someone knows. He takes out his frustrations on the rink and the snow wall that bounds it.
Tress struggles to understand how Kenan has changed, but can’t share the horrors he lived without her. She shares her frustrations with her Aunt Maggie. Maggie silently hopes that Tress does not suffer her own fate.
Maggie rediscovers her joy of music in a choral society and finds friends in fellow music lovers Zel and Lukas.
Am bears his own losses and fears he has lost Maggie forever. He also takes out his frustrations on the snow wall that bounds the rink.
Deseronto is a community practised in keeping its secrets close. Much is unseen below the surface. The few who know each secret are adept at not letting on. There is an engrained culture of not asking. Itani matter-of-factly captures the isolation this engenders and the resulting harm. No epiphany changes the behaviour in the end. And yet the loneliness is braced with hope. In the end, one family seems on the brink of new happiness. The other moves to bury more sorrow.
Perhaps the verdict lies in the title of the book.
Tell stands on its own, but reading Deafening first makes some details more understandable. Where Deafening shows the isolation of living in a silent world, Tell shows the cost of choosing not to speak. I am glad I read them together.
Is a picture worth 1000 words?
Compare Itani’s prose (in this case, just over 100 words) to Gassed, a monumental painting by John Singer Sargent in the Imperial War Museum. Both eloquently describe a moment in the horror of war.
He’d rushed to help, just before the men were led away to a dressing station for evacuation―those who could walk. Others were lying on the ground. The walking soldiers, a dozen or more, had been formed up in a line. Each had a hand on the shoulder of the man in front; each had a field dressing covering his eyes, blistered skin showing on his hands and around the edges of his bandages. … And then, just before they began to move, they tilted their heads down, all at the same time, as if each blind man had chosen that moment to stare into the same angle of darkness. (p 11)
Read my interview with author Frances Itani.