Beauty despite clichés
With her new novel That’s My Baby, Ottawa writer Frances Itani returns to Deseronto, the small southern Ontario town which was the setting for her 2003 novel Deafening (awarded the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) and her last book, 2014’s Tell, which was nominated for the Giller Prize. The new book, however, isn’t really a sequel.
That’s My Baby serves as a companion piece to the earlier novels, directly linked, but broadening the scope of the storytelling. The novel deepens our knowledge of familiar characters, shifting them into a historical background while bringing the narrative (almost) up to date. Deseronto, like many small towns in our rapidly urbanizing age, feels like little more than a ghost, a memory, in a novel that spans continents, spending most of its length somewhere else, while never entirely losing its rural roots.
That’s My Babybegins in1998. Hanora is a writer in her 70s living in the city, struggling with her work (“When a writer isn’t writing, uncertainties bubble to the surface, uncertainties expand”) as she researches the life of largely unknown Canadian painter and diarist Mariah Bindle, and cares for her beloved cousin Billie, who is exhibiting signs of dementia.
As Billie loses her grip on her identity, Hanora questions her own, troubled, as she has been for six decades, by the fact that she is adopted and she has no clue to the identity of her birth parents.
Readers of Tell will already know the answer to that question, but that robs That’s My Baby of none of its power. Slip- ping back and forth through time, Itani builds Hanora’s biography, a life welllived, focusing on her life in London during the Second World War, her youth in rural Ontario in the1930s and the passage by sea to England in the early days of the war.
The contemporary passages are perhaps even more rewarding, as Hanora continues her research, agonizes over her cousin’s decline (while dealing with the hard decisions such a condition creates), and slips, easily and surprised, into a new, late-life relationship. Itani writes with a quiet grace, an acute attention to detail and a keen, empathic awareness of things not said, of secrets and hidden emotional truths.
That’s My Baby leans heavily on the sort of tropes that support the negative clichés of Canadian writing, from its earnest tone to its narrative touchstones, including an actual box of letters (in this case, a seaman’s chest), the CanLit version of Chekhov’s gun.
Despite this, the beauty and force of the novel cannot be denied. Robert Wiersema’s latest novel is Black Feathers.