I got married this past Saturday, so I picked one of my favourite love stories to review because I feel like that’s just necessary. Now, when I say love story you have to understand that I don’t mean a historical bodice-ripper (though this book is historical and the women do, presumably, wear bodices), nor do I mean a schmaltzy Nick Sparks book full of breathless forbidden love and people dying of cancer (though this book does have lots of love and people do die). I simply mean that the relationship on which the story pivots is a romantic one.
This book – Frances Itani’s Deafening – is, like last week’s read, set in Canada and written by a Canadian lady (Side bar: There are a TON of great Canadian books written by people other than Margaret Atwood, and if you’ve never checked them out, go do that. And also continue to read Margaret Atwood). Also like last week’s read, Deafening features a young heroine whose life is shaped by an uncommon circumstance. Our central lady in this case is Grania O’Neil, daughter of Irish immigrants (shut up, I know. At least she’s never on a boat), smart, fiercely independent and profoundly deaf.
Grania is not born deaf, so she has a leg up on, say, Helen Keller, but goes deaf at age five as a result of contracting scarlet fever. Still, she has to completely re-learn how to navigate the world, and as this is set between about 1905-1919 there are significantly less resources available than would be around these days. The first part of the book focuses mainly on Grania and her family (including the formidable and fantastic Mamo, Grania’s kick ass grandma) adjusting to her deafness and learning how to communicate. Eventually Grania meets, falls in love with, and marries Jim, a hearing man, and their relationship is eight hundred kinds of swoon, until Jim has to ship off to Europe to fight in World War One and everything goes to Hell in a hand cart.
Things that make this book amazing! Well, there are lots of them, but I’ll just touch on my top two or three. First and foremost – the deaf representation. Seriously, seriously if everyone wrote books about disabilities with the level of informative description, compassion and respect with which Itani writes about deafness here, then we’d all get leaps closer to being able to understand all the differently abled people who make up our world. I have worked with and been friends with hearing impaired folks before, and I have always found sign language to be one of the most beautiful languages, but I never really felt like I understood what it meant to be deaf until I read this book. Obviously, as a hearing person I’m never going to be able to 100% know what it feels like to hear nothing all day every day, or to have to re-learn every aspect of communication and how to move in the world, but Itani manages to describe it well enough that I at least have a pretty solid idea of what it might be like. There is one particular passage in which Grania describes how she categorizes the world into things that move and things that don’t – because things that move (cars, electrical saws, running people or animals) can hurt you if you don’t have sound to warn you of their approach – that made me sit up in my chair and go holy crap, then spend the next half hour trying to imagine what it would be like to try and cross a busy city street when you can’t hear cars or people coming. Furthermore, Jim is a musician, and he thinks in song and sound and rhythm. There are whole sections of Jim describing sound to Grania and Grania describing the lack of sound to Jim that had me throwing the book around making “GAH” sounds just over the exquisite beauty of how the author explains both worlds. Seriously people I LIVE for this stuff.
Second thing! World War One! Well, ok, World War One is kind of a weird thing to list as a highlight, because it’s pretty much soul-crushingly awful, but all I mean is, the first of the two world wars doesn’t always get equal representation in fiction to the Second World War. I’m not sure if this is because the unique atrocities and all-over horrific history of Hitler and the Nazi party moves people to write about it more, or if it’s just more recent and therefore thought of as more relevant, I honestly don’t know. I just know that I can think of about twelve books currently sitting on my bookshelf that center around WW2, whereas as the total number of WW1 books I own is currently 3, and two of those deal with the war only peripherally. Deafening is the one book I own that gives the First World War a starring role. And ok, this is probably a failing on my part, probably I’m just not finding the right books, but also, I kind of feel like it’s not? REGARDLESS, here’s a book about World War One that gives you all kinds of information about how mindlessly horrifying it was (all wars are mindlessly horrifying, but WW1 was a muddy, disease-ridden, barbed wire-filled trench-warfare slice of literal Hell that I personally, for whatever reason, find particularly nightmarish), and also paints a very vivid portrait about what it was like to be one of the women left behind. Ladies banding together to support each other through terrible scary times is totally my jam. NOT TO MENTION, something really brilliant happens when the narrative begins to alternate between Jim off on the front lines and Grania, back home in Southern Ontario. The contrast between those two realities – Jim’s which is constant noise and chaos and destruction, and Grania’s which is literally perfect quiet – becomes even more extreme. Furthermore, there are moments when Grania’s entirely silent world is a place of incredible turmoil, while Jim finds moments of perfect peace amidst the madness. THIS BOOK IS FREAKING POETRY GUYS I LOVE IT.
And lastly I’m just going to stress how very, very great the characters all are. Grania’s lady-friends and family are all spectacular well-rounded characters who feel just like real people, and Mamo, oh Mamo you are the grandmother to end all grandmothers. To read about Mamo is to love Mamo, that is what I’m saying. Also important to mention is the male characters are just as great. Jim is just about everything you could want in a love interest, and his side of the story is very very important. And Grania, well, I just want to be her best friend. I mean, at this point I pretty much collect literary best friends, and she is WELCOME to join and teach me sign language and take me out into the woods to smash plates when I’m pissed off or whatever.
IN SHORT: read this book. I’m trying to come up with a pithy closer to this review but I’ve still got wedding brain, so all I’m really managing is the typed equivalent of shaking the book in your face until you agree to read it just to shut me up. So that’ll have to do for now, but really. The book! Read it!
See you on the flip side Sonderlusters!!!!