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Review: Fiction

How past evils haunt the present Add to ...

The time is 1997. Bin Okuma, a middle-aged Japanese-Canadian visual artist living in Ottawa, is in mourning after the sudden death of his wife five months before. When his sister suggests he visit their father in Kamloops, Bin makes an impulsive decision to go on a cross-country road trip, accompanied only by his dog. His intended destination is the site of an internment camp in interior British Columbia, where he was incarcerated as a child during and after the Second World War.

Will he stop and visit his father on the way? He doesn’t know. Bin hasn’t seen his father in 50 years, nor has he forgiven him for a decision he made then that fractured the family.

Thus does acclaimed Canadian writer Frances Itani begin Requiem – with a mournful main character, a plot-triggering trip and a hint of a mystery. But as in Remembering the Bones, Itani’s previous novel, the present-day story mainly serves as a framework for remembrances of a life. Bin’s journey by road is also a journey down a meandering river of memory.

On the long drive west, Bin thinks about his childhood and his marriage, about his university-age son’s early years, about the familial friendship he and his wife developed with an elderly Ottawa neighbour. He recalls family vacations when his son was young, and relives the circumstances of his wife’s untimely death. But mostly, he bears witness to his five years in the internment camp.

The personal history Itani has chosen for Bin allows for a comprehensive retelling, in quotidian detail, of the injustices imposed on Japanese Canadians living on the West Coast during the Second World War: the suspension of civil rights, seizure of property and hardships imposed upon those of Japanese ancestry are all covered, as are various incidents of casual and systemic racism. Itani has done her research well (disclosure: a non-fiction book co-written by my father about the period is cited in her acknowledgments) and Bin’s camp experiences are vividly rendered. Yet some vignettes – including descriptions of a wedding, a theatre performance put on by camp inmates and life at an American internment camp – read more like excerpts from a history book or memoir than like fiction; their relevance to Bin’s quest is not apparent.

Itani is an accomplished stylist; her prose is lyrical yet clear, her pace unhurried. Carefully chosen motifs and themes are woven through the story, with special care taken to convey Bin’s artistic perspective through his first-person narrative voice, as in this passage describing a spring thaw at one of the many rivers that run through the novel:

“The sheet [of ice] is wide, its farthest edges a blur. The ground shudders and ice crashes simultaneously through current and against shore, piling up layer after layer of harsh, metallic salt. What first appeared to be slush has become a chain of high, grating hills. Never again will I witness the purity of this shade of blue.”

Itani’s empathy and understanding of human nature enliven her characters. Bin’s wife, Lena, is shown to have a vibrant and loving personality that complements Bin’s more subdued nature. And the scenes that depict Bin’s life with his second father, Okuma-san, a former musician, resound with evocative characterizations, such as when Okuma-san “practises” Beethoven sonatas using a wooden panel painted with black and white piano keys, or stitches together his own skin with needle and thread when it splits open in the bitter winter weather.

For all his quiet ways, Bin is angry when the novel begins – angry about the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the war, angry that his wife died of a stroke at 49, angry at his father for decades-old transgressions. He was only a boy when he heard Okuma-san tell another grieving man that rage is pointless, that “if we allow the rage, it will consume us.” In this finely written, reflective novel, Bin’s physical journey and mindful recollections lead him to a place where he can choose to either hold onto his anger or make peace with his ghosts.

Kim Moritsugu is the Toronto author of five novels. Her Canadian-born father, Frank Moritsugu, was 19 in 1942 when he and his family were forcibly relocated from their home in Vancouver to camps in the B.C. Interior.

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