Deafening by Frances Itani

312882When I learned of Frances Itani’s newest book, Tell, and that it included some of the characters from her 2004 book, Deafening, I knew it was time I finally read Deafening. And, I am so glad I did. I loved it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Tell, so I can go back to 1919 Deseronto, Ontario.

Deafening is divided into 5 sections. In section 1, we meet Grania and her family. After being ill with scarlet fever when she was five, Grania becomes deaf. We follow along on her journey to learn to communicate in the world of the hearing, in a language with many tricks and subtleties that can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

The language of the hearing was never simple. Language is our battle ground, Grania thought. The one over which we fight, but with no desire to be part of the conflict.

This part of the book is rich in detail, and seems to be well researched. I later learned, in the acknowledgments, that Frances Itani’s own grandmother was a deaf woman who gave birth to 11 hearing children. Also, the school Grania attends in the book is based on the former Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario. Many of the excerpts at the beginning of each chapter are taken from the “The Canadian“, which was the paper that came out of the school at the time.

Section 2 jumps ahead to 1915. Grania is now 19 years old, and has met and fallen in love with a hearing man named Jim. There is talk about the war. Some men, including her sister’s husband have already left to fight. Jim is also heading off to war, but first they spend a happy two weeks of marriage.

Section 3 and 4, 1916 to 1918. Jim has gone to war, and he and Grania are communicating by letters. As Jim experiences the war, he forms letters to Grania in his mind, while Grania checks the mail everyday and tries to avoid thinking about unwanted telegrams. The narrative goes smoothly back and forth between the front lines in France and the quiet town of Deseronto; Jim in the unimaginable horror of the war; Grania in the quiet horror of her mind while she waits for news and for the war to end so her husband can come home.

If only he did not have to look at the hands. In death they told more than the face; he knew that now. 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. “How can this be? My life pulling away?”

What was most dear to her was being held in a tight place high in her chest. She felt as if she would be forced to take shallow breaths for days and weeks and months, until Jim would come home.

Through Grania and Jim, Itani writes about the guilt and the anger, the grief and the loss.

Was it selfish to want the men to stay home?

He wanted to tell her how sorry he was that he’d left…

Was she the only one who was angry?

… some grief was so big that it had to be kept inside.

He had lain there, staring into the dark, feeling a uselessness that was mixed with betrayal and shame for being alive.

We have waited so long, and we have all lost something.

Section 5. Finally, the war is over. But the mental and emotional battles are not yet won; men who have come home are changed; people are still recovering from the ravages of the Spanish Flu; some men have come home and some haven’t. How can you recover from such things? Although the answer to this question seems like it could only be bleak and grim, Deafening leaves us with a sense of hope that the world will once again right itself.

Deafening is a quietly beautiful novel about the time of the great war. If you are interested in books set during WWI or any war, you won’t want to miss this one. I’m adding it to my list of great novels about wartime.312881

Deafening won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

In this thorough and informative interview at the Quill and Quire, Frances Itani explains that she did not intend to write a war novel. She started out with the idea of writing a novel to honour her late grandmother, but realized “that if she wished to tell the story of a young woman growing up here during the first two decades of the 20th century, there was no avoiding the trenches. “I couldn’t pretend World War One didn’t happen,” she says. “It affected everything in those children’s lives. With a sinking heart, I knew I was in for it.” She went on to do 6 years of extensive research on both WWI and the world of the deaf, including several years of studying American Sign Language.

Itani wants to do justice to the woman who left her believing, growing up, that “being deaf was a wonder, a marvel.”

For Itani, writing about people during wartime is, in large measure, the same as writing about a deaf protagonist – or about anyone: an exercise in honouring individual struggle, its every pertinent detail.

Reading about how this book came about has made me appreciate it even more. Have you had that experience with a book? Do you have any favourite novels of the Great War?


15 thoughts on “Deafening by Frances Itani

  1. Ariel Price says:

    Wow – this sounds wonderful! I love WWI and WWII literature. Not sure I have an absolute favorite, but I do love I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits. Adding this one to the list. Thanks!

  2. Carole Besharah says:

    Thank you for letting me revisit one of my favourite CanLit books. Ever. I was wondering if I should read it again (It’s been so long!) before delving into Tell. You’ve just refreshed my memory. The yearning in this book… harrowing.

    Will check out the interview right now. Cheers!

    • Naomi says:

      I am glad that I will have Deafening fresh in my mind when I read Tell, but I feel sure it would be good all on its own, too.

      Enjoy the interview! I found it fascinating. Sometimes I find myself skimming interviews, but I wanted to read every word of this one.

  3. Don Royster says:

    World War I is a war I’ve been interested in for a long time. Pat Barker’s The Regeneration Trilogy and All Quiet on the Western Front are favorites. But I must say that the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are the most moving of all. The Wilfred Owen poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, sums up the experience of war for most who fight. It ends with the lines: “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” Loosely translated, that means “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.” It is too bad that poem is not some country’s national anthem. My interest in the war led me to write a short story “The Lighthouse Keeper”. Though it is a bit long, 3400 words, I may just post it on my blog next year on Armistice Day, November 11.

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read The Regeneration Trilogy, but I would like to. And All Quiet on the Western Front has been sitting in my pile for quite a while now. Other books just keep getting placed on top. Another Canadian WWI book that I loved is Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. You should check it out, even above this one!

      I have read the poem you are referring to. It is gut-wrenching. You should definitely post your story- it sounds good! I also like stories about lighthouses I live in a province that is full of them.

  4. ebookclassics says:

    Wow, 11 kids! Frances Itani’s grandmother should have gotten her own award. For some reason, even though I hadn’t read it, I was so sure Tell was going to win the Giller. This book sounds so wonderful, but I’m feeling a little war weary so it may take me awhile to get to it.

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean. I read two war books in a row (Obasan and Deafening), both so good, and there was another I was going to read next, but I decided I needed a little break. This is a great one, though, if you’re feeling like a war book.

  5. buntymcc says:

    I started to read Deafening when my oldest grand daughter was the same age as Grania, and found it too sad. (My grand is not deaf, but I kept thinking, what if?) Thanks for the summary. With that perspective, I think I can go back and read it now.

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