Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pleasant novel destined to be known as minor

Remembering the Bones
By Frances Itani
HarperCollins, 283 pages, $30

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

WHEN someone in their 80s dies more or less peacefully, either of old age or by some lingering illness, mourners are usually heard consoling each other with phrases like "They lived a long, full life," or "It was time."

While most people would consider these good deaths, they do not usually make for good literature, which seems to require grit and suffering to lift from the page.

Take Georgie Witley, for example, the main character in Ottawa writer France Itani's much-anticipated new novel.

Georgie, a widowed homemaker, shares a birthday with Queen Elizabeth. One of 99 invitees to the Queen's 80th birthday celebration, Georgie is driving herself into town to catch a transatlantic flight when she drives off the edge of the ravine her house stands on.

Stranded at the bottom of the ravine, badly injured, Georgie waits to be rescued while thinking on her life.

There is a venerable tradition in Canada of "I've fallen but can't get up" literature, ranging from Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel (1964) to Jennifer McCartney's Afloat (2007).

There is a more recent literary trend, perhaps attributable to the crush of forensic police procedurals on TV, that takes this genre to its logical but graphic conclusion. This "literature of the newly dead" includes Brit Jim Crace's Being Dead (1999) and American Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (2002).

Arguably, it is Hagar's flinty refusal to succumb in The Stone Angel - the locally made movie version starring Ellen Burstyn will be launched this fall - that makes her such a compelling character. Georgie, on the other hand, could be described as pleasant, even polite, even while dying.

And this is precisely where the novel stumbles and falls (if you'll forgive the extended metaphor).

Georgie has lived what seems to be, well ... a long, full life. She lost people dear to her but also married the man she loved and raised a daughter to adulthood.

And even though dying on her back in a ravine is far from ideal, well ... she's lived a long, full life.

This is not to say that Remembering the Bones is bad. It is filled with wonderful set pieces, including scenes from Georgie's childhood and early married life. It will probably even be a hit with book clubs.

The biggest problem with this effort, frankly, is that Itani's first novel, Deafening (2003), was so very, very good and this one is, well ... not.

Though Deafening, which touched on both deafness and the trauma of trench warfare, must have involved years and years of research for this non-deaf non-combatant writer, it somehow managed to read like lived experience.

It also helped that Grania and Jim (a deaf woman and her hearing stretcher-bearer husband, respectively) were among the more compelling characters of any novel of the past decade.

Remembering the Bones' missteps can't be attributed to a sophomore slump on Itani's part, either. Though only her second novel, it is her 11th book, as Itani has had a long and distinguished career as a poet and writer of short stories.

And so, although it is entirely pleasant, Remembering the Bones is destined to be remembered as the minor novel that fulfilled Itani's famous six-figure two-book contract with American publisher Grove Atlantic.

It should go without saying, however, that the reading public should be grateful for Deafening and whatever other books Itani chooses to write, as she is one of the few writers who seems to deserve all the accolades heaped upon her.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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