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Deafening: A Novel Hardcover – September, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 378 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition (September 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871139022
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871139023
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,064,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is my surprise book of the year. It was a gift, and I didn't quite know what to expect, but it's turned into a real winner.
Spanning the years from 1902 till the end of WWI, we follow the life of Grania, a child/woman who became deaf following scarlet fever. From a loving middle-class family, she went to a boarding school for hundreds and hundreds of deaf children, grew into a self-sufficient young woman, became a nurse, and married a hearing man, Jim. He went off to war, as did her childhood friend and brother-in-law, Kenan. Improbably for that Great War, both men returned - but in very different conditions.
Divided into several parts, the early chapters are Grania's education, learning to live as a deaf person in the world of the hearing. The next part is Jim's story of his war experience.
Then comes Grania's ultimately successful efforts to return the power of speech to her mute and traumatized childhood friend. And finally the resolution of all the stories.
This book grows on you. One of the boldest risks author Itani took was to try (successfully) to convey Grania's silent world to readers, and to imitate the understanding of sign language as well as lip reading for those of us unfamiliar with the Deaf World.
It's a stunning and powerful book, showing the power of Story to convey love, union, and understanding - and ultimately, joy.
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Format: Hardcover
The true test of an author is the ability to portray the mind of someone else. Recently, that ability has been stretched by writers who describe the "abnormal". The young, autistic Christopher in "Curious Incident" is the prime example. Frances Itani takes us into a different world, that of the deaf. It's a world of endless confusion. There are sounds, so easy to the hearing, but meaningless to the deaf. We think speech is the only important sound, but talk is hurried, undirected, and indistinct. Nature produces her own sounds which we use in speech, but for which there's no meaning to the deaf. Through Grania O'Brien's early life, Itani strives to introduce us to that world. Does she succeed?

Grania, who would have been "Grainne" in her ancestral Ireland, lives in small-town Ontario as the story opens. Deafened by scarlet fever [remember that?], she's coached by Mamo, her grandmother. Blessed with a quick eye for lip-reading, Grania is given a book with words displayed as rope. The rope, of course, becomes highly symbolic as the book progresses, but Grania begins to equate the shapes with meaning. Mamo strains to have the girl equate printed words with proper sounds. It's important that Grania "blend in" with the rest of the community. With her parents running a hotel, Grania's only other tie is with her sister Tress, with whom she develops a secret sign language.

All of Mamo's dedicated effort, nor trips to sacred shrines, can't force the pace. Grania is to leave home for a "Deaf School". Itani portrays the school as staffed with immensely caring ladies. No Dickens intrudes with harsh discipline or abuse, but the school draws children from across the Province. All the children remain in school until the summer holidays.
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Format: Hardcover
A great novel!

This book, by Francis Itani, revolves around the world of a girl/woman who as acquired deafness through childhood illness. The setting is initially in Ontario, Canada in the late 1800's and then eventually alternating between Ontario and the European theater of World War I.

I must admit I had some difficultly getting into this work, but I persevered and I'm glad I did, because this book is truly a magnificent read. Once committed, I could barely stand to put the book down.

As with all great books, what makes this book special, is the quality of the writing. The prose just seemed to flow effortlessly off the pages as time melted away. You learn things about deafness, quietness and darkness that you never really noticed before; you begin to appreciate what people without hearing have to endure to get through an hour, a day or a lifetime. There were a couple of occasions in this book where I was taken aback with a new revelation regarding deafness; where I would just let this book slip to my lap and think about what I'd just read.

There are parts in this book that are not for the faint of heart; some of the description of the trench warfare in France and Belgium are very graphic and disturbing. (but, most likely, accurate)

All in all, a story that is quietly beautiful and at the same time beautifully sad. Really, one of my favorite books. If I had to compare it to another book for quality, beauty and heartrending appeal, then I'd pick Charles Frazier's " Cold Mountain". Both books have that intangible timeless aura to them that separate them from their peers.
Highly recommended!
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Format: Hardcover
In this sensitive portrayal of love and war, author Itani reveals the life of Grania O'Neill from her earliest days in Deseronto, Canada, through her marriage to Jim Lloyd, who serves in the Ambulance Corps during World War I. Grania has been deaf since the age of five, and Itani opens her inner world to the reader, using Grania's voice to tell the story and gracefully conveying her deafness as part of her selfhood, not as a handicap. Using short sentences of twelve to fifteen words when Grania is a young child trying to figure out her world, Itani begins the story in a simple subject-verb-object pattern, using no complicated clauses or involved syntax, which Grania herself would be incapable of using. When Grania becomes fluent in sign language and lip-reading, the sentence structure becomes more complex. By the time she marries Jim, a hearing man, sentences and syntax are fully developed, and Grania's ability to recognize ambiguity, to see relationships between events, and to respond fully to a hearing world are obvious in her "voice."

The point of view alternates between Grania and Jim, once Jim goes off to war, and important themes--war and peace, life and death, love and friendship, and strength and dependence--weave and develop throughout their contrasting worlds, Grania at home and Jim at the front in Belgium. Itani develops these age-old themes in new ways, sensitively incorporating them with the imagery of sounds and silence, sight and shadows, action and inaction, images we have come to associate with the life Grania and Jim share. In Jim's traumatic world, sound becomes overwhelming: pounding guns, explosions, screams of agony from wounded soldiers.
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