DEAFENING by Frances Itani
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An impressively daring first novel from Canada—storywriter Itani’s US debut—immerses us in both the world of the deaf and the world of WWI trench warfare.

Grania O’Neill is a lucky little girl. Even though her scarlet fever brings on incurable deafness, she is encircled by her family’s love. Yes, she is smart and strong-willed, but it is the love of grandmother Mamo and big sister Tress that pulls her through (Mother’s love is obstructed by guilt). It’s a new century; this family of Irish immigrants owns a hotel in a small Canadian company town on Lake Ontario. The practical Mamo becomes Grania’s mentor, but realizes that Grania must leave the charmed circle to attend a boarding school for the deaf. Institutional life has Grania crying for two weeks until she takes control. We learn along with her: how words can be felt; how to concentrate on whatever moves; how to “look for the information” by developing “an extra eye.” Grania stays on after graduation, working in the school hospital, where she meets Jim Lloyd. The attraction between deaf and hearing person is immediate. Even though Jim will soon be headed over there (it’s 1915), the two decide on marriage, a wedding blessed by Mamo. At the front in Belgium, Jim is a stretcher-bearer. We tumble into a pit of horrors. The noise is relentless. Some of the boys, though uninjured, will become deaf. They work together with the enemy in No Man’s Land, soundlessly, miming their search for the wounded. Artful links, these, to Grania’s odyssey, which could have been overwhelmed by the frontline gore. There is grim news on the home front, too, as Grania nearly succumbs to the great influenza epidemic of 1918; Mamo sacrifices her own life to save her. Jim returns home unharmed, but with “old eyes.” Husband and wife embody Itani’s theme: the power and reach of love—love that falters only in the face of the unknowable.

Itani never loses control of her tricky material: the result is an artistic triumph.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-87113-902-2
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2003


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