When 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.
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?