September 2003

The sounds of silence

By Frances Itani
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After a summer of slick, steamy thrillers, Canadian writer Frances Itani's first novel is the literary equivalent of a cool autumn breeze. War and peace, language and silence, and separation and attachment are among the themes embraced in this American debut set in early 1900s Canada.

Scarlet fever robbed red-haired Grania O'Neill of her hearing at the tender age of 5. Her mother, Agnes, holds herself responsible for the illness, because she took Grania "the night she was so ill, through the open passageway in winter so that she could keep her close, watch over her, keep her on a cot in the hotel kitchen while she worked." While Agnes prays for a miracle to restore her daughter's hearing, Grania's grandmother, Mamo, knows the sensible solution is to enroll the child in a special school. At the Ontario Institution for the Deaf, 9-year-old Grania will learn sign language and speech, but she'll be separated from younger brother Patrick and beloved big sister Tressa. Grania thrives in school, and after graduation takes a job at the school hospital, where she meets a kind-eyed hearing man named Jim. Through Itani's vivid imagery and lyrical prose, we enter Grania's world as she communicates with her new companion, both by watching his mouth and putting her hands to his lips. Grania and Jim fall in love, but their bliss is cut short when Jim is called to serve in the First World War. Apart from her husband for two years, Grania feels "a loneliness so brittle, she believed that she would break in two." It is only when her soulmate returns safely that the young woman's fractured heart is whole once again.

Against a backdrop of war, Deafening is a celebration of personal victories, both large and small. When Kenan, her brother-in-law and childhood companion, returns from the front, so traumatized from the experience he is unable to speak, Grania's gestures and emotional generosity help him regain his voice. She is a woman who knows how to listen even though she cannot hear.

Allison Block is a writer and editor in La Jolla, California.


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By Frances Itani
Atlantic Monthly
ISBN 9780871139023

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