Deafening is a tale of remarkable virtuosity and power. At the age of five, Grania — the daughter of hardworking hoteliers in small-town 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 mother cannot accept her daughter's deafness, so Grania's indefatigable grandmother tries to teach her language from the inside out. But when it becomes clear that Grania can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf where 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 two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave to serve as a stretcher-bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders. During the war, Jim and Grania's letters — both real and imagined — attempt to sustain their intimacy, even while they are both pulled into cataclysmic events that will alter the world forever.
In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani's American debut novel, she tells two parallel stories: a man's story of war and a woman's story of waiting for him and of what it is to be deaf. Grania O'Neill is left with no hearing after having scarlet fever when she is five. She is taught at home until she is nine and then sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, where lifelong friendships are forged, her career as a nurse is chosen, and she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, with whom she falls in love.
The novel is filled with sounds and their absence, with an understanding of and insistence on the power of language, and with the necessity of telling and re-telling our stories. When Grania is a little girl at home, she sits with her grandmother, who teaches her: "Grania is intimately aware of Mamo's lips--soft and careful but never slowed. She studies the word as it falls. She says 'C' and shore, over and over again… This is how it sounds." After she and Jim are married and he is sent to war, he writes: "At times the ground shudders beneath our boots. The air vibrates. Sometimes there is a whistling noise before an explosion. And then, all is silent." When Grania's brother-in-law, her childhood friend, Kenan, returns from war seriously injured, he will not utter a sound. Grania approaches him carefully, starting with a word from their childhood--"poom"--and moves through "the drills she thought she'd forgotten… Kenan made sounds. In three weeks he was rhyming nonsense syllables."
A deaf woman teaching a hearing man to make sounds again is only one of the wonders in this book. Because Itani's command of her material is complete, the story is saved from being another classic wartime romance--a sad tale of lovers separated. It is a testament to the belief that language is stronger than separation, fear, illness, trauma and even death. Itani convinces us that it is what connects us, what makes us human. --Valerie Ryan