At the age of five, Grania-the daughter of hardworking Irish hoteliers in smalltown Ontario-emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf and is suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. Her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept her daughter’s deafness. Grania’s saving grace is her grandmother Mamo, who tries to teach Grania to read and speak again. Grania’s older sister, Tress, is a beloved ally as well-obliging when Grania begs her to shout words into her ear canals and forging a rope to keep the sisters connected from their separate beds at night when Grania fears the terrible vulnerability that darkness brings. When it becomes clear that she can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, where, protected from the often-unforgiving hearing world outside, she learns sign language and speech.
After graduation Grania stays on to work at the school, and it is there that she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man. In wonderment the two begin to create a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence. But just two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders.
During this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania’s letters back and forth-both real and imagined-attempt to sustain their young love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful. Frances Itani’s depiction of a world where sound exists only in the margins is a singular feat in literary fiction, a place difficult to leave and even harder to forget.
I loved this book so much. If you checked out my November Anticipated Reads and Releases post, you’ll know that I have a fascination with deaf culture and that this is my first literary introduction to the deaf community. And if you’re even slightly intrigued by the deaf community, I think you’ll enjoy this novel.
But before I get into all the good things, I should let you know why I gave this puppy 4 stars instead of 5. I didn’t like Itani’s writing style all that much. It wasn’t terrible or anything like that, it’s actually pretty good. However, it did feel a little jumpy at times. It felt as if the beginning of the novel had been written in pieces and then strung together to create the start of the story. Definitely not my favorite writing style I’ve ever seen and it was frustrating. But once you get past the first few chapters, it’s smooth sailing from there.
On to the good. Grania is such a multi-dimensional character. One of the best main characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I loved her because she’s not like Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) or Celaena Sardothien (Throne of Glass) who are both fiercely independent and have a very I-can-do-it-by-myself type of attitude. Grania is more of a real life, every day type of independence. She’s incredibly human even when she’s being brave. We see her get angry or frustrated or scared at the same points in life that we, as readers, would feel those emotions. It’s a nice change from the sci-fi and high fantasy heroines that have become so popular in YA.
I was also really in love with Grania’s family. Again, they were very representative of reality. Furthermore, through my limited understanding, Grania’s mother and grandmother came across as the representation of the “opposing” (for lack of a better word) views on signing versus speaking. Again, this is only from my very minimal understanding of the deaf culture. But I did enjoy seeing this dynamic play out between the two of them and in Grania’s own life.
To put it simply, Itani did a miraculous job of capturing real-life emotions of characters. And, more importantly, he did so while also making you feel the same thing. I consider this to be the mark of a good author – when you feel the same way that a character does. I really enjoyed reading this in the scenes involving Jim because he is such an amazing character. Although he often doesn’t appear flawed, it was the little things that made Jim an amazing character. Because I don’t want to spoil anything for you, I’m just going to say I would easily call Jim my favorite character.
If you can’t tell, this book comes highly recommended. Although the beginning was a bit rough, the plot and the characters were both incredible. Itai has an amazing ability of conveying emotion and he does a phenomenal job of describing things to make them feel real. Everything about this novel was realistic, that is its greatest strength. If you’re looking for an intriguing historical fiction that puts great focus on characters, this book is for you. If you’re a die-hard historical fiction fan, then you need to read this. And if you have any interest in the deaf community, read this. Basically, everyone should read Deafening