In this grim year, we are all getting a lesson in sorrow from the loss of our freedoms and the loss of loved ones. We are mourning almost 9,200 souls taken by the COVID-19 plague.
Yes we are learning much about grief.
Into this black and white time comes the latest novel from Ottawa’s Frances Itani. The Company We Keep follows six people (and an African Grey parrot named Rico) through their own journeys with loss.
After three years, Hazzley is struggling to come to terms with the death of her alcoholic husband Lew. To begin a process of understanding she posts a notice for a conversation group. Four people make the first meeting: Recent widow Gwen, moving out from the oppressive shadow cast by her husband; Chiyo, a 40-something fitness instructor who cared for her difficult mother in her last days; Addie, who is caring for a friend who is about to die from cancer and Tom, a widower who has lost his way. They will be joined later by Allam, a Syrian refugee with his own journey in grief.
But before we get too immersed, this novel is not an examination of the seven stages of grief, Itani told ARTSFILE.
“Let me make clear to you first of all that I absolutely avoided looking up anything to do with the stages of grief. I want nothing to do with that.
“I didn’t want my characters sitting around contemplating their own mortality and thinking ‘I’m at stage one, two or three’. I just wanted to create these six people who were trying to get through to the next day.”
At 78, Itani has lived a life of observation, that has produced 18 books including That’s My Baby, Tell, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Requiem and Deafening, which won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Along the way she has learned something about human behaviour. Add to that her time as a nurse and she’s been watching people’s behaviour since she was 18 years old, if not earlier.
She nursed for eight years before returning to study some more and then teach nursing. And while other young people her age were listening to The Beatles, she was doing intensive care work at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
“You are thrust with this responsibility of things going wrong and people grieving all around you.”
She has been marked by that “in a good way. I chose a hospital to train at that was a research hospital because I love learning. That’s also why I did graduate work at Duke University and McGill.”
Having lived a full life, Itani has lost many people. “I find it different in every case. But what my nursing did was made me realize at a very early age that I was absolutely drawn to working with human behaviour. I have always been really interested in understanding the human condition.”
“My own reactions to grieving my mother, my father, my sister, my closest friends … every one has been absolutely different. I would say that none of the grieving I have gone through personally has been has been anything like the way the characters are doing in the book.”
Grief is personal. Every experience is different.
“I’m interested in grief in terms of what is exactly going on in life, in terms of every day.”
In a way this latest novel is a “culmination of all that I have learned, just because of where I am in my own life.”
The characters of The Company We Keep experience a gamut of emotions running through each individual’s journey, including sorrow, but also humour, love, sexual attraction, anger, frustration and a sort of liberation.
The novel is built on a seed of information provided by a chance conversation after a book event in Brockville. Afterwards she was escorted to her car by Margaret Williams, a librarian who was on her way to parrot-sit.
What? Itani said. The librarian explained and Itani knew she had something she could use in a novel. The two exchanged emails and the research began. Turns out there are a lot of parrot stories to be had.
She made Rico an African Grey because the species produces the best talkers “and I absolutely wanted my parrot to talk.”
Once she had Rico, someone had to care for him. In her mind Itani pictured someone who was tall and thin and “bruised” by life. Eventually she realized the character, Gwen, had been bullied and had lost her husband recently and he was the bully.
She proceeded to add characters and concluded “this was going to be a group.”
The writer’s journey continued when she reconnected with a friend who let slip that she belonged to the Grief Ladies, a group of widows who meet once a week, to share stories and fellowship.
“This was happening as I was trying to get the book started. Again this was something that I heard. It was a trigger. I am so alert to this sort of thing.”
And her imagination got to work creating a range of characters of different ages.
Two characters, Hazzley and Tom, who are roughly the same age as Itani. They aren’t her, in fact they are totally unlike her, she said. But “they have lived through the same decades as I have. I know what goes on in the lives of people who are in their 70s, because I am surrounded by people in their 70s.”
The book does offer a message that life and death, in all its variety, even in a pandemic stuck in COVID’s prison with its growing, relentless toll, is not all doom and gloom. Nor is it all lightness. For Itani life is “real.”
The release of her novel in this time wasn’t planned.
“Here am I writing about six people who come together and everybody who is reading it is in isolation. That, to me, seems like a cruel irony of where we are at this particular moment. It’s pretty frightening.
“But I absolutely didn’t want my book to be a downer in any way.” And it isn’t.
“I hope it reflects real expectations of human behaviour. My primary focus is on realism through the very particular details that I use on each life.”
To realize her characters and their stories, she does, “enormous amounts of research once I decide who and what they are going to be.”
One of her characters is a 60-something Syrian refugee named Allam.
“I have to tell you this is one of the bizarre things about the book. I was working on it and by this time all the characters were very real to me and part of my family. Tom was sitting in his antique store and Allam just walked in off the street. I have no idea where this man came from.”
But, she said she knew right away that she wanted to keep the character and she wanted to find out about him.
So, with the help of the writer, editor and journalist, Larry Scanlan, Itani was introduced to Jamal Saeed, who helped her understand Syrian culture and the lives of the refugees who have come to Canada, and who has become her friend. She has helped him get a literary agent and he’ll have a memoir out soon.
In the telling of the stories of these characters, there is a life lesson for a reader, but that’s not Itani’s intent. She is trying to write about the human condition. “It’s what I am all about. I am always really hopeful that my readers will understand more of human behaviour and of themselves and their own experiences. I hope readers will see themselves.” So far the response she has been getting from readers is gratifying. They are seeing it as a slice of life, something they can relate to, she said.
She is familiar with the grim side of life from her time working in a hospital.
“I was thinking recently about the very tight bond I have with the nurses that I have dedicated this book to — those who were in my class. We were 121 when we started out, I don’t know how many graduated (in 1963), probably about 111. We are still in touch.”
“It’s because we went through such intense experiences I believe. We shared everything, we shared our stories. The first time we experienced a death and had to do up a body, that was huge. We were 18 years old” and working in the Montreal General Hospital.
“These were unforgettable experiences. Not everyone can handle that kind of experience, but if you make up your mind you are going to do it, you figure out how to handle it.”
One way is through a sort of gallows humour, she said. It was and is a way to cope.