Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Frances Itani's Requiem


You are youngest, number-two son, born in the year of the tiger. A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect […] But because your time of birth was at the cusp of the year of the rabbit you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.


So notes Bin Okuma’s father in the opening chapter of Frances Itani’s most recent novel, Requiem. This dubious fate is made more complicated by the wide sweep of history. Born to a Japanese-Canadian family in the years leading to the Second World War, Bin and his family along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians are deemed enemy aliens by the government and forcibly relocated to an internment camp in the B.C. interior. There they are forced to live in primitive conditions for the duration of the war, stripped of their possessions and their freedom. 


A talented artist struggling in the wake of his wife’s recent death, the adult Bin continues to be haunted by both this collective betrayal as well as an individual betrayal that shattered his family. His impulsive decision to revisit the site of the camp and subsequent journey from Ottawa to the Fraser Valley mirrors his psychical journey in which he strives to reconcile grief, memory, and history; themes that are conveniently bundled in the figure of his dead wife, a history professor in life. 


Switching among multiple time periods, which serve to mimic the fragmentation of memory, Itani explores the short and long-term impact of the internment; both practical and psychological. While she successfully conveys the day-to-day details of camp life, the harshness of the environment seems paradoxically minimized due to the efforts of the internees as they attempt and largely succeed in forming a functional community. The hardships faced by internees are not glossed over but they make do. Still one gets the sense that from the viewpoint of another character, or a slightly older protagonist, even more hardships would be evident. 


Interestingly, it is Bin’s experiences in the immediate post-war period that prove most compelling and the reader is left wishing that more attention was given to this phase of his life. Indeed, this failure points to the core weakness of the text; namely, the generally dull characterization of the adult Bin who dominates the narrative. Unlike the joyful realization of Grania O’Neil, the protagonist of Itani’s 2003 bestseller Deafening, the characters in Requiem sometimes struggle to transcend the weighty themes that the author explores making for a ponderous and slow-moving first half. The repeated symbolism of rivers and continual references to Beethoven, though providing insight into the development of Bin as an artist, occasionally prove irritating, not to mention Basil the dog. Similarly some specifics about the wider internment policy might have been better left in a postscript as they pull focus from the narrative’s momentum. 


Fortunately a significant revelation at the halfway mark creates a much more engrossing story as the reader gains greater insight into Bin’s psyche. Seemingly secondary characters are thrown into sharp relief and Bin’s conception of himself as a husband, father, and son are more deeply enriched. Moreover in the end Bin’s fate, the fate of the tiger-born, is finally realized.