War: Secrets and Loss

Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

As Neta Gordon recently observed in Catching the TorchContemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I, “Most works written since the mid-1990’s . . . express a desire to make productive use of the war, even if simply to set ahistorical contemporary ideas—such as belief in duty, justice, or community—into a meaningful context of living history.”

Itani and Inman, using two different narrative forms, fit well into the category Gordon describes. Both writers examine the experiences of “ordinary” people in communities in post-war Canada. Itani’s novel, Tell, describes the lives of those who must adjust to emotional and physical wounds wrought by war, disease, and trauma. She also invites readers to consider the effect of secrets or loss on families. Likewise, Inman situates his poetry in the common experiences of people whose lives have been touched by war—not just World War I, however—but two hundred years of war which have affected Canadians, beginning with The War of 1812 and concluding with Canada’s peace-keeping efforts.

The War Poems: Screaming at Heaven is Inman’s first trade poetry book. His poems, some of which have appeared in literary journals, experiment with form, dialogue, irony, and humour. Inman has said he wanted to look at the lives of those who funded the war through taxes and family. His domestic subjects are revealed through powerful, evocative images, and rhythmic, alliterative language. All the poems begin with a short epigraph that sets the narrative that follows in the context of world conflict, popular culture, artistic representation, important inventions and historical events. Yet they also describe the private lives of citizens, such as Albertha, who “liked her second beer / better than the first,” and Jack, the veteran who sends his wife’s “cracked / and re-glued china figurines . . . into tragic flight.”

Inman’s collection effectively explores universal questions about human suffering and injustice through both its title and content. The poem which includes reference to the title is not about war, as one might expect, but rather about a child’s frustration as she waits in the rain for her mother: she “stood with her head tilted back, mouth wide open, / screaming at heaven.” The references to 9/11 and the SARS epidemic in the epigraph of this poem emphasize Inman’s interest in examining the complexity of tragedy and the far-reaching effects of war, disease, and more subtly, innovation.

Like Inman, Itani writes about private lives in communities touched by war. Tell, long listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a sequel to Deafening (2003). Tell is the story of Tress and her husband Kenan, a disfigured war veteran who has recently returned home to resume “normal” life. Their story, set in Ontario in 1920, becomes entwined with that of Tress’ aunt and uncle, Maggie and Am, a couple whose marriage is threatened by emotional distance and untold secrets. Tell is a domestic story, set in the “meaningful context” of small town life in Canada.

Itani is a master of fine detail. Newspaper articles, playbills, and letters add veracity and create the kind of “living history” that Gordon describes. Rather than emphasize the plot, Itani describes the common yet complex things that create barriers to intimacy and community: emotional and physical withdrawal due to war wounds and shell shock, alcoholism, the pain and sorrow of infant mortality and infertility, and the secrets related to adoption and infidelity. Itani eloquently captures a sense of Canadian culture in the early 1990s, with its recitals and homemade skating rinks. However she is careful to draw the dark side as well, through the complicity of the whole community in keeping secrets.

As the title suggests, Itani is interested in the theme of “telling.” She contrasts silence with the sharing of secrets. Healing, she emphasizes, requires telling one’s painful stories. In a key scene, Am reveals: “I grew up around silent men. . . . Speak when spoken to. That was the message.” As Kenan and Am break their silence and share their secrets, Kenan develops new self-awareness that may represent the reality of all war veterans: “The world I knew doesn’t exist anymore. All I want now is to let out the dangerous words that are in my head. I can’t say them. . . . I can’t set things right. What happened over there.”

As Kenan continues to “tell,” he experiences healing. This is alluded to most poignantly in a series of letters exchanged between Kenan and his comrade Hugh who is recovering in a sanatorium. In response to Kenan’s missives of daily life, Hugh shares his feelings of regret and loss through the image of an empty chair set on the hospital porch when a patient dies. He asks Kenan to “imagine if we had placed a chair in no man’s land for every loss.” Hugh speaks, I think, for most people affected by war: “How could we not be angry at the staggering waste of life—well the millions of empty chairs?”

These texts add to the list of Canadian war narratives written in the last twenty years. These accounts of regeneration, healing, and loss give voice to veterans, to women, to the poor, and to the marginalized in periods of international conflict. The Stone CarversThree Day RoadThe Blind Assassin, and the works of Itani and Inman offer glimpses into the private lives of Canadians, those whose stories of suffering and secrets deserve to be told.

This review “War: Secrets and Loss” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 158-59.

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