Frances Itani’s new novel spans continents while keeping its rural Ontario roots

Frances Itani returns to small southern Ontario town Deseronto to deepen our knowledge of characters from her earlier novels.  (Maggi Knaus)  
That’s My Baby, by Frances Itani, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $32.99.  (HarperCollins)  

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 Baby begins in 1998. Hanora is a writer in her seventies, 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. Slipping back and forth through time, Itani builds Hanora’s biography, a life…

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