Deafening by Frances Itani

In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani 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.”

I had the privilege of meeting Frances Itani in 2007 at an arts festival event. Her book Remembering the Bones had recently been released and Itani was on a book tour to support the novel. After her reading, I approached Itani and she was absolutely lovely, gracious and very funny. We chatted for many minutes about writing, solitude and the wonder of creating people and settings – for a living! I left the evening with a copy of Remembering the Bones, with a personalized autographed, and a feeling of great respect for a very talented Canadian author. I have yet to read it for fear of spoiling my wondefrul “Itani Moment”.

In the meantime, Deafening remains one of my favourite novels and I recommend the book as often as possible. It is beautiful ~ the words, the sentences, the story, the flow. I rate this novel 5 stars and encourage you to read this amazing book.