Frances Itani

"Deafening"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 21, 2003)

A [sign] language is taking shape, one in which, haltingly, she is beginning to take part. She misses and misunderstands, but puts meaning--right or wrong--to words that come to her in sign. Her hands, to her surprise, and jerkily at first, begin to send ideas out. Her face and body punctuate; her eyes receive. She is falling into, she is entering a new world. She is joining the larger conversation of hands."

Grania O'Neill is five years old in 1902, when she loses her hearing following a bout of meningitis. Because her parents work full-time at the hotel they own, Grania's remarkable grandmother, Mamo, and her 9-year-old sister Tressa are largely responsible for the love and learning which make her changed life within a hearing family as "normal" as possible during her early childhood. With Tressa, Grania invents a kind of sign language; with Mamo, she has an advocate who recognizes that she is very bright but sees the world differently from others-"The world…is divided," Grania says, "into things that move and things that don't move…It keeps me alive. Movement and shadow."

Following the life of Grania from pre-school in Deseronto, Canada, through her marriage to Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, who becomes a stretcher-bearer in the British Ambulance Corps in World War I, author Itani opens the inner world of the deaf to the reader. Always careful to convey Grania's condition as "normal," as opposed to a handicap, Itani gracefully recreates the town, the family, and the outside world with which Grania deals, conveying her deafness as part of her self-hood, and the response of others to her as typical for the times. Her father wears a large mustache, and when it is too long and covers his mouth, she does not know what he is saying, something that appears to make no difference to him. Her mother, who blames herself for the illness, wants her to lip-read, to be as much like the majority of the world as possible, and strongly objects to sending her to a school for the "deaf and dumb."

But Grania is isolated in her small elementary school for the hearing. Her teacher is unprepared to deal with her issues, and she is unable to lip-read while in a large group with changing speakers, most of whom do not face her when they speak. "She is brimming with questions, but there is no one to ask." Eventually, she is sent away to board at the "deaf school," where she is not allowed to see her family for nine months and where she can receive only one letter every two weeks, an abandonment so complete that she feels "she might as well be in an orphanage."

In a style completely in tune with Grania's experience, the author writes in Grania's voice. So skillful and so natural is this that it is impossible to know if the author does this deliberately or if it naturally follows from having "lived with" and "known" the character she has created. When Grania is a very young child, trying to make sense of a world in which she cannot experience sound, for example, the author writes in short sentence of twelve to fifteen words, with Grania carefully recording what she sees in order to look for cues about what is happening. Because a deaf child of this age would be hungry for information and knowledge which she could put to immediate use, the sentences follow a simple subject-verb-object pattern, and contain no complicated clauses or involved syntax, which Grania herself would be incapable of using. When she become fluent in sign language and lip-reading, her sentence structure becomes more complex. The sentences become longer and feel more "normal" to the reader. By the time she marries, her sentences and syntax are as complex and fully developed as they would be for anyone else. She still interprets the world through visual information, but her ability to recognize ambiguity, to see relationships between events, and to respond fully to a hearing world are obvious in the "voice" through which she speaks to the reader.

The story of Grania and her life in a hearing world is only part of this story, however. In 1915, Grania meets Jim Lloyd for the first time, marrying him two weeks before he answers the call of Mother Britain and departs for front-line duties in the Ambulance Corps. As the novel switches back and forth between the points of view of Grania in Deseronto and Jim in Ypres, Belgium, the reader experiences the dramatic contrasts between their lives. In Jim's traumatic world, sound becomes a paramount issue. Pounding guns, explosions, screams of agony from wounded soldiers, and the tortured breaths of men overcome by poison gas fill Jim's world. At the same time, he is also, as a result of his life with Grania, more sensitive to what he sees. Accustomed to watching Grania's sign language, Jim discovers that it is the hands of the dead and dying that are most disturbing to him. "It was the hands that revealed the final argument: clenched in anger, relaxed in acquiescence, seized in a posture of surprise or forgiveness, or taken unawares. Clawing at a chest, or raised unnaturally in a pleading attitude."

The friendship and interdependence of Jim and Irish, his best friend, which is one of the most touching aspects of Jim's life at the front, parallel the love and support Grania has received from her sister and Mamo and from her deaf friends. And just as Grania becomes a strong person through them, and is able to give support and strength to others when circumstances change and they need her, Jim, too, gains strength from his relationship with Irish. In the aftermath of war, life has changed for everyone in Deseronto. Local soldiers have died. Others who have survived will never be the same. Some who have spent their lives offering comfort and support find that they, themselves, now need help; some of them get it from Grania.

Author Itani deals with big themes in this novel, war and peace, life and death, and love and hatred, but she develops these themes in new ways, incorporating them with the imagery of sounds and silence, sight and shadows, action and inaction. As the reader comes to know Grania and Jim and the love they feel for each other, s/he ultimately has to agree with Grania when she says, "Sound was always more important to the hearing."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews


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About the Author:

Frances ItaniFrances Itani was born in Belleville, Ontario and grew up in a Quebec village on the Ottawa River from age 4. She taught and practised Nursing for 8 years, earned a B.A. (Univ. of Alberta) and M.A. (Univ. of New Brunswick). She has lived in most Canadian provinces, the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, and has travelled extensively in East and West Europe, Cyprus and Japan. Teaching and writer-in-residence positions include the Univ. of Ottawa, Trent University, The Banff Centre, Nepean Public Library, etc.

She is the author of four acclaimed short story collections, including Leaning, Leaning Over Water and has also published poetry and a children's book and has written features for CBC Radio. Her many awards include the Tilden/CBC Literary Award for 1995 and 1996, and the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award for Fiction. Her new novel, Deafening, is a tribute to Itani's grandmother, who was deaf from the age of 18 months as a result of scarlet fever. Itani divides her time between Ottawa and Geneva.

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