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Monthly Archives: February 2009

Catch of the Day

Deafeningby Frances Itani

Frances Itani’s Deafening was recommended to me a few years ago by my short story instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference.  It had been chosen the year before as one of the contenders in the Canada Reads competition (losing out to another great book, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness). 

Deafening is the story of Grania, a girl struck deaf by a life-threatening bout of scarlet fever. In the first part of the book, we are taken on a journey inside her head as she struggles to make sense of this new silent world and her place in it. Not only does she have to cope with the changes in the way she communicates, but also in the way her family and the people in her small town treat her.  
The second part of the book takes place at the beginning of World War 1.  It recounts Grania’s life as a young hospital worker. She meets a young doctor’s assistant named Jim, and they marry.  They spend two weeks cocooned together, getting to know one another, before he is shipped off to England to become a stretcher bearer in the war. 
The second part of the book also interjects Jim’s point of view as he experiences war.  He writes letters in his mind to Grania – letters he will never send – of the horrors he experiences on the front lines.  
While the narrative itself is poetic and lovely,  the true strength of this book is the amount of detail Itani imparts to the characters and the setting.  Every writing teacher says “Show, don’t tell”, and Itani accomplishes this with depth and compassion.  The reader truly feels the frustration and isolation Grania feels in her deafness, but also at times, her relief in that isolation.  The relationship between Grania and her sister, or Grania and her grandmother is depicted with so much realism it is nearly tangible.  The emptiness between Grania and her mother is weighted and fraught with regret.
Grania’s relationship with Jim was for me, however, a little harder to plug into. Perhaps I was more intrigued with living Grania’s deafness vicariously than with living her love life.  That said, the moments where she explained to Jim how she took the world in as a deaf woman, and the way he explained the way he did, as a hearing man, were touching and original.  The way he took what he learned from her into the noise and confusion of war was also beautifully thought-out and written.
I found myself rushing through the battle scenes, wanting to get back to Grania –  which upon further consideration, could be exactly what Itani wanted to impart-that urge to get back to someone I cared about, loved-as Jim wanted to.  I had to force myself to read those sections, which could also have been difficult because of the exquisitely painful detail of what Jim saw and felt.  It was so well-written and horrifying that I wanted to avoid it, to look away.

Deafening took Itani years to write due to the amount of time she put in researching deafness and WWI.  The book, with its well-drawn characters (some of the best I have not written of – I don’t want to give anything away!) and poignant scenes (the scene of a deaf man, rejected by the armed forces due to his disability, being presented with a white feather was hard to stomach) is one of the best I have ever read.