In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani's American debut novel, she tells two parallel stories: a man's story of war and a woman's story of waiting for him and of what it is to be deaf. Grania O'Neill is left with no hearing after having scarlet fever when she is five. She is taught at home until she is nine and then sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, where lifelong friendships are forged, her career as a nurse is chosen, and she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, with whom she falls in love.
The novel is filled with sounds and their absence, with an understanding of and insistence on the power of language, and with the necessity of telling and re-telling our stories. When Grania is a little girl at home, she sits with her grandmother, who teaches her: "Grania is intimately aware of Mamo's lips--soft and careful but never slowed. She studies the word as it falls. She says 'C' and shore, over and over again
This is how it sounds." After she and Jim are married and he is sent to war, he writes: "At times the ground shudders beneath our boots. The air vibrates. Sometimes there is a whistling noise before an explosion. And then, all is silent." When Grania's brother-in-law, her childhood friend, Kenan, returns from war seriously injured, he will not utter a sound. Grania approaches him carefully, starting with a word from their childhood--"poom"--and moves through "the drills she thought she'd forgotten
Kenan made sounds. In three weeks he was rhyming nonsense syllables."
A deaf woman teaching a hearing man to make sounds again is only one of the wonders in this book. Because Itani's command of her material is complete, the story is saved from being another classic wartime romance--a sad tale of lovers separated. It is a testament to the belief that language is stronger than separation, fear, illness, trauma and even death. Itani convinces us that it is what connects us, what makes us human. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
War and deafness are the twin themes of this psychologically rich, impeccably crafted debut novel set during WWI. Born in the late 19th century, Grania O'Neill comes from solid middle-class stock, her father a hotel owner in Deseronto, Ontario, her mother a God-fearing daughter of an Irish immigrant. When Grania is five, she loses her hearing to scarlet fever. When she is nine, she is sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Belleville and given an education not only in lipreading, signing and speaking but also in emotional self-sufficiency. After graduating, she works as a nurse in the Belleville hospital, where she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd. They marry, but Jim is bound for the war as a stretcher bearer. His war is hell on earth: lurid wounds; stinks; sudden, endless slaughter redeemed only by comradeship. Itani's remarkably vivid, unflinching descriptions of his ordeal tend to overshadow Grania's musings on the home front, but Grania's story comes to the fore again when her brother-in-law and childhood friend, Kenan, comes back to Deseronto from the trenches in Europe with a dead arm and a half-smashed face, refusing to speak. Grania, who was educated to configure sounds she couldn't hear into words that "the hearing" could understand, brings Kenan back to life by teaching him sounds again, and then by making portraits of the people in the town whom she, Kenan and her sister Tress know in common. As she talks to Kenan, she reinvigorates him with a sense that his life, having had such a rich past, must have a future, too. This subplot eloquently expresses Itani's evident, pervasive faith in the unexpected power of story to not only represent life but to enact itself within lives. Her wonderfully felt novel is a timely reminder of war's cost, told from an unexpected perspective.
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