Elegantly written and profoundly moving, Frances Itani’s debut novel is a tale of virtuosity and power. Set on the eve of the Great War, Deafening spans two continents and the lives of a young deaf woman and her beloved husband.
Frances Itani’s astonishing 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. With the simultaneous publication of Poached Egg on Toast, Itani’s new short story collection, this is the perfect time for Deafening.
A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of unusual commercial interest that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.DEAFENINGFrances Itani. Atlantic Monthly, $24 (368p) War and deafness are the twin themes of this psychologically rich, impeccably crafted debut novel set during WWI. Born in the late 19th century, Grania O'Neill comes from solid middle-class stock, her father a hotel owner in Deseronto, Ontario, her mother a God-fearing daughter of an Irish immigrant. When Grania is five, she loses her hearing to scarlet fever. When she is nine, she is sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Belleville and given an education not only in lipreading, signing and speaking but also in emotional self-sufficiency. After graduating, she works as a nurse in the Belleville hospital, where she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd. They marry, but Jim is bound for the war as a stretcher bearer. His war is hell on earth: lurid wounds; stinks; sudden, endless slaughter redeemed only by comradeship. Itani's remarkably vivid, unflinching descriptions of his ordeal tend to overshadow Grania's musings on the home front, but Grania's story comes to the fore again when her brother-in-law and childhood friend, Kenan, comes back to Deseronto from the trenches in Europe with a dead arm and a half-smashed face, refusing to speak. Grania, who was educated to configure sounds she couldn't hear into words that "the hearing" could understand, brings Kenan back to life by teaching him sounds again, and then by making portraits of the people in the town whom she, Kenan and her sister Tress know in common. As she talks to Kenan, she reinvigorates him with a sense that his life, having had such a rich past, must have a future, too. This subplot eloquently expresses Itani's evident, pervasive faith in the unexpected power of story to not only represent life but to enact itself within lives. Her wonderfully felt novel is a timely reminder of war's cost, told from an unexpected perspective.