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Deafening

by Frances Itani

The flood of books about the First World War never seems to end. In the past few years, we’ve had Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, John Keegan’s The First World War and of course, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919. In fiction, there’s been Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and Regeneration by Pat Barker (not to forget Timothy Findley’s The Wars, perhaps his best novel.) Now we can add Deafening to the list, a novel that tells a hauntingly familiar story in a rather astounding new way.

This is Frances Itani’s second novel (following three well-regarded story collections) and it is partially inspired by the experiences of her deaf grandmother. For Deafening is the story of Grania, a little girl growing up on the shores of the Bay of Quinte in southern Ontario in the early years of the 20th century, who is struck deaf by scarlet fever at the age of five.

It’s also the story of Jim, her hearing husband who, shortly after their honeymoon, leaves to play his part in the Great War in Europe. Itani’s theme throughout this quietly lovely novel is the complexity of sound and silence and how they can be both blessing and curse to the humans who experience them.

We first meet Grania surrounded by her loving but puzzled family, trying to come to terms with her sudden disability and figuring out what to do next. Her mother prays for her daughter’s hearing to return but everyone else knows this is hopeless. Her grandmother, Mamo, is the one who teaches the little girl to read and speak, while Grania herself begs her older sister to shout words and phrases into her ear canals.

When the lights go out at night, the darkness combined with the silence makes Grania very afraid, until her sister devises a rope out of old scarves and stockings that each of them can tie around their ankles to keep them connected from their separate beds. It’s an extremely moving image.

Finally, at age 9, Grania is sent to the nearby Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville for seven years of segregated education (the pupils are not allowed home for Christmas, even if their families live close by, as hers does) She is taught a mixture of Oral and Manual training, that is, both speaking and signing. There may well be other novels that burrow into the fascinating combination of hands, lips, throats, and eyes that constitute deaf communication, but it’s hard to imagine one that treats the process more seriously, more practically, and at the same time more poetically than Itani’s.

When young Jim (or Chim, as Grania’s lips pronounce his name) enters the picture, their relationship is so delicately intimate that it almost feels as if we are peeping illicitly through a window. “Grania positioned herself so that she could lie with her head on the soft part of Jim’s upper abdomen, just below his chest. For a while he sang softly so that she could feel his song…. She was certain that she could identify Jim’s heartbeat from all heartbeats. It pulsed to her skin, and the rhythm of their breathing merged.” But it’s not long before Jim is swept away from his deaf bride and off to the trenches of France and Belgium, where he and his partner, Irish, toil as stretcher-bearers for three endless years.

The deafening noises of war teach Jim the same lessons that Grania’s deafness has taught her, a stance toward the world that is somewhere “between wilful and involuntary attention.” She has told him about the delay she experiences between what happens and what she understands; under bombardment he feels that gap as well, and knows that the habit of “tuning out” that deaf people do is something he must master for self-preservation.

“Sound knocks us over,” he writes to her, “blocks all thought, seeps into the body like deadly gas.” When Irish is killed and literally obliterated right next to him, Jim falls silent with the living and has meaningful conversations only with his dead friend. Thus does Itani play back and forth with notions of sound, silence, and what constitutes real communication.

Some aspects of Deafening are overly formulaic. Of the three young men we’re apprised of from Grania’s village who go to war, it’s entirely too predictable that one will die, one will return horribly maimed, and one will come home safe. But there are surprises too: it’s a shock to learn that the Canadian boys and men who went to fight were constantly undernourished and hungry. Could we not at least have fed them properly?

Deafening is a slow and graceful read, richly textured, keenly felt and witnessed, and at times almost unbearably moving.