Deafening – Frances Itani

10 July 2012
Part 1, 1903-1905
This is a first novel by a poet and writer of short stories. It’s written in the historical present that is the tense of choice amongst writers of historical fiction: it must seem like a way to get the reader involved and to be persuaded that, somehow, these are not ancient, long-dead stories. We’re almost always inside the head of Grania O’Neill, and it isn’t always a comfortable place to be: she’s been deaf since contracting scarlet fever three years ago at the age of five. But in every other respect she’s massively fortunate. She is being taught to read and speak by ‘Mamo’, her Irish grandmother who was widowed on the voyage over to Canada. There’s Tress, her loving and understanding older sister, and a loving and hard-working father who owns their family-run hotel. Sure, her mother can be hard work – hard work being her watchword – who has had the cares of the world on her shoulders since her father’s death on the voyage when she was still a child. When she looks at her daughter she might feel love, but what she feels more is guilt. Catholics are good at guilt, but this family is even better at love.

In case we haven’t got it, Grania gets Mamo to tell her the story of her own birth, again. Half the town was burning down at the time, and Mamo had to deliver the child. There’s a heartfelt description of the love she feels instantly for the red-haired newborn, in a mixture of speech – Grania is an expert lip-reader – and gestures: ‘it was then that she felt… the strength of this miniature being move towards her like a wedge of falling timber aimed at her heart.’ Ok. I can’t quite picture it myself, but it sounds serious. And in case we still haven’t got it, ‘Grania’ is the anglicised version of a Gaelic word for – wait for it – love. Isn’t that nice?

It isn’t all like this, although some of it is. I marked a page where there was another of Itani’s extreme similes later, when Grania has finally been sent to a school for the deaf. She cries for two solid weeks. But then she dusts herself down – actually she sits up and leans against the metal of the bed-frame – and ‘decides that she is finished with crying. She flattens her unhappiness the way she and Tress once pressed leaves inside Tress’s book.’ Ok, again.

What strikes me about the nearly 100 pages of Part 1 is how long it takes Itani to evoke a place and time. Her style is often painstaking and repetitive – deliberately so, as she builds up the family mythology through stories that are re-told. Mamo keeps the canvas bag her husband had used to carry the fine clock they brought with them from Ireland, and she goes walking with it when things are bad. (Those are Itani’s italics, and the phrase comes up more than once.) This is all very well, and by the time Grania has to make that move to the boarding school – she can get nothing out of mainstream school with a non-specialist teacher who has 30 other children to look after – we really can feel some of her pain. But little else feels real to me, despite literally pages of description of the hotel, the town, the bay. There’s plenty of detail, right down to the planking of the boardwalk and the lettering of the signs, but I’m not getting imaginative sweep.

The other painstaking thing is Itani’s evocation of deafness. Again, the details are faultless. Grania could hear perfectly well until she was five, but the fever wiped her mind clean of words at the same time that it made her totally deaf. She’s a tabula rasa, and we follow the slow progress she makes, mainly through the efforts of Mamo. Itani describes the many different ways that deafness sends the girl inside herself so that, for instance, her fear of the dark is completely believable. In the bed in the same room as Tress, darkness renders her so alone she always climbs into bed with her sister… until Tress devises an improvised rope tied to both of them that confirms to Grania that her sister really is still there.

But it’s Mamo who is continually devising ways to bridge the chasm between the deaf girl and the hearing world. While Grania’s mother places all her desperate faith in prayers and an impossible miracle – only a New York specialist, a long day’s sailing away, is able finally to persuade her there’s no hope – Mamo gets on with the job of teaching her to lip-read, speak, and read. Itani, poet that she is, can make the girl’s slow re-acquisition of language into an almost physical journey. The vibrations of the old clock chiming, the feel of words on her grandmother’s neck and lips – and written words and letters formed into rope, as shown in the primer the old woman acquires for her – all emphasise how tactile and tangible the lines of communication have to be. This rope, along with the one between Grania and Tress in their bedroom – Itani doesn’t make the metaphor explicit because I suppose she doesn’t feel she has to – ties the girl to her family and to the world of the hearing.

I’m beginning to realise that language is at the centre of this book: what it is and how it is acquired. Grania and Mamo have to deconstruct words sound by sound – but Grania, in her own head, must do the same for everyday idioms. At the word level she often gets it wrong, for instance, with ‘belong’. ‘Be long’? At the school she’s certainly a long way from home. Will she ever belong? (She will, as it turns out.) As for phrases… she’s always tripping over them. She’s fond of ‘kick the bucket’ and, along with others, it forms misleading pictures in her head. Her favourite of all is her grandfather’s: she is ‘the apple of his eye.’

There are a lot of eyes in this novel. One of the girls at school prays every night that she will not go blind as well as deaf. Eyes are everything to them, and the ears have to be ignored. Fry, Grania’s new friend at school, can hear a little but finds she needs to suppress what little hearing she has if she is to learn properly, through her eyes. She is going to follow the signing route, while Grania will learn to use her voice. And if this isn’t deep enough, Grania remembers her mother’s sampler: God’s eye for my seeing, God’s ear for my hearing, and ‘wonders if Saint Patrick might have been deaf and used God’s ear to hear.’ And I’m also realising that this is a book about signs, signing, signifiers. As Grania deconstructs language and builds it form its constituent parts, Itani seems to want to take us through the process of language acquisition. For Grania, part-way through her first year – Part 1 ends with the summer holiday – the confusion of signs used by the children around her begins to turn into something else. ‘A language is taking shape, one in which, haltingly, she is beginning to take part.’

And I’m guessing that Itani has more in mind than simply the acquisition of language by the deaf. The processes she describes are universal. If I had to predict, I’d say that this novel – and we’re only a quarter of the way through it so far – is going to be a Bildungsroman, the story of the way one young person learns how to engage with the world. Central, as I’ve suggested, is language. And for a deaf girl, books are even more central than to others. There’s Mamo’s primer with its rope letters, the book of fairies they use to press leaves, the catalogue they cut up to create imaginary lives. You just wait. In Grania’s life – like Itani’s, I suppose – books are always going to be crucial.

11 July
Part 2, 1915
Yep, ten years after the end of Part 1. And what I feared previously, that I was going to find it difficult to stay interested, has happened. God, it’s dull. Or no, not dull – how could it be when Itani is so good at evoking the moment, the visual or tactile detail? – but… what? You could condense 50-odd pages into a few sentences if you wanted to, as a young deaf woman, almost flawlessly self-contained, and intelligent, and thoughtful, and inquisitive, and observant, and generous in spirit meets a man who isn’t deaf. What would you expect Itani to do, given the tone and content of Part 1? Well, she does it. The meeting is striking – it’s her stillness that gets him, before he knows she’s deaf; the growing acquaintance, liking and, inevitably love is only complicated by – yawn – the ever-rising tide of feeling against the Germans. The first chapter is full of the Lusitania, to the extent that the image of Ireland in Grania’s head – the atrocity took place off the Irish coast – is tainted. And at the end of 50 pages he’s on the train and out of there.

Along the way we find out about his musicality, and Itani gives us details of their conversations as each tries to understand aspects of the other’s life that are unknowable. Like so much else in this novel, it’s painstaking and feels convincing. And, like so much else, it’s not terribly interesting. I marked a page that confirms the bond between these two. It’s as strong as the old bond between Grania and Mamo. ‘When he was away from her, he felt his own strength move towards her, in the same way that he felt hers moving towards him.’ Got that? What? It doesn’t mean anything? It’s strong, see, like ‘the strength of this miniature being’ that Mamo can feel ‘move towards’ her when the child is born. Me? I find it sentimental and so unspecific as to be pointless. They felt – sorry, wrong tense – feel a strong love for each other. End of story.

The problem is that there’s no tension, in this relationship or any other. If a person in this universe is anything other than kind and dedicated, Itani hurries on past and gets back to those with hearts of gold. (Sigh.) Grania and Jim, as he’s called, are married, they briefly live in rooms in a clock-tower – clocks again – and then he goes. She has promised to move back to the hotel while he’s away, just as Tress has done while her husband – the childhood sweetheart from Part 1 – is also gone to war. At least Grania’s husband isn’t going to be shooting people: he’s joined a field-ambulance unit. As he leaves she makes the cloyingly sentimental – sorry, heart-rendingly touching – name sign for him, based on the ‘C-H’ of her mispronunciation of his name.

Clocks. Time. The names of each of the five sections of the novel are, conventionally enough, given in Roman numerals. Why is Part 4 – we will still (sigh) only have reached 1917-18 by then – called Part IIII, like the numerals on a clock? Will I manage to stay with it long enough to find out? I rarely give up on novels but, goodness me. All the strangeness of Part 1 has gone, somehow, and for 250 pages we’ve got the bloody First World War, again. It’s only a couple of years since I read one in which a character joins a field-ambulance unit, although I suppose I can’t blame Itani for that, especially since it was written after this one.

13 July
Part 3, 1916
All but 20 pages of this is told from Jim’s point of view. Crossing the Atlantic – awful, obviously – training in England, then travelling to Belgium and France for a hellish time in the trenches, no-man’s-land and the bombed-out ruins of Ypres and Albert. Itani has gone for the past tense throughout, which I’m assuming to be deliberate… but I can’t be bothered to think of reasons why she might have made the change, which – I just checked – she sticks with until the end of the novel. We’ve got 85 pages, mainly with Jim, divided not only into chapters but into episodes of a few pages each, separated by asterisks.

(Sigh.) In the chapters covering the War there’s almost nothing we haven’t come across in other literature. If, in 2003, no other poet or novelist had ever written about the trenches, Jim’s experiences would have been a revelation. As it is, I found myself ticking things off a mental checklist as they came up. The contrast between the gung-ho atmosphere at home, where everyone wants to join up and do their bit, and the hell of the trenches: check. The stench and noise: check. The new recruits who cringe at every explosion, in contrast to those who have been there a while and don’t: check. Young men – Itani always refers to them as boys – who look old: check. And so on, down to specific details: body-parts emerging from the sides of trenches; the colour and cleanness of intestines – you always get exposed intestines in novels about this war – in contrast to the dirt and mud; the still moment when the main character can look straight up to see clean blue sky and hear the sound of birdsong; the look of faint surprise on the face of the friend as he is killed by a bullet or shrapnel; the appalling conditions in the field hospitals. And, near the end of Part 3, the look he exchanges with a German stretcher-bearer tending enemy wounded in no-man’s-land. The look is ‘cold’, but how (yawn) can he possibly see this man as an enemy?

That’s ten things, and I don’t doubt I could easily find another ten if I looked. Each of those asterisked sections has details we aren’t reading about for the first time. Which doesn’t mean, necessarily, that there’s nothing new at all. Itani is keen for us to understand that Jim has learnt from Grania, particularly her ability to withdraw into some deep inner self: this novel is, above all else, the story of how lovers learn from one another. No, scratch that, because ‘story’ implies some kind of plot, and there isn’t any. All the sections in Part 3 (as in Parts 1 and 2, for that matter) are made up of nothing but a succession of events that Itani assiduously tells us about, so the love has to come out in other ways.

They think about one another, separated by all those thousands of miles. We see the inevitable photograph he keeps of her, so much more carefully than his friend keeps the one of his girl. We have memories of important moments like the first time they touch, the first time they share a bed. The descriptions of these are resolutely coy, as though a red-blooded young man is really going to remember only the clasp of his hands on her (clothed) stomach as they stand in the clock-tower apartment. Anything visceral – anything remotely physical, in fact – is going to be confined to the nasty stuff that happens on battlefields. Between Jim and Irish, the bestest friend he makes on his first day of training, there’s no talk of sex, either serious or bantering. (Now I think of it, there are no jokes about anything at all, none of the black humour of the trenches that we read of in true accounts. But why would there be? There’s not a shred of humour in the whole novel.) It’s like reading a book aimed at young adults in which nothing to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person should be referred to.

Grania’s thoughts are no less modest: she doesn’t remember sex, only ‘love’, as if these are synonyms. And she wanders about in the Canadian town, picking up the kind of home front stories we might expect. Fry’s husband – did I mention she and Fry are still bestest friends? – keeps trying to get past the medical board to join up despite his deafness. A group of interfering women who’re into everyone else’s business press a white feather on him despite his being the bravest man in the whole town, if only they knew. (Yawn.) It turns out that Grania and Jim were only married and living in the tower flat for two weeks, so Itani can give her a touching scene when she returns to it for an hour or so and thinks about the past and her husband all those miles away. Etc. Letters are sent in both directions, but often arrive in bundles, weeks or even months late. The reader glances up to see how many more pages there are to go.

But, as I’ve said , this is all about love. In the clock tower, Grania looks out at the view she showed Jim all that time ago – was it really only a few months when (yawn) it feels like years? – and thinks about the IIII on the clock-face she is looking at from inside. I knew that would come up, but I’m still only guessing why. And she imagines sending her ‘silence’ to him over the ocean she has never seen. It’s Itani going for a poetic conceit, and she reverts to the present tense for just this section as Grania focuses to make the silence extend, ‘spreading slow and even, like moonlight over water.’ We know about lovers and moons… and, reader, it works. There it is, crossing the ocean and reaching ‘a maze of saps and trenches’ until it finds ‘one man’. Nothing happens. Jim and Irish have a terrible time at the battlefield, get no sleep for two whole days. And then, after it all, ‘the entire world on both sides of the ocean is still. And Jim sleeps.’ Reader, this is the first time he has been able to sleep properly since he arrived.

The implication is that amongst all this et cetera, there is always their et cetera. Itani is throwing all she’s got at it, but it doesn’t work for me.

15 July
Part IIII, 1917-18
Only a brief reference to clocks, as it happens: they don’t tick for Grania, they pulse (Itani’s italics). But we knew that already.

About two-thirds of the way through this, the longest section of the novel at 110 or so pages, I started liking it better. We’ve had some inevitable bad news, but it isn’t as bad as it might have been: there’s a telegram about Kenan, Tress’s husband, but he isn’t dead. And when he finally arrives home with a useless arm and a terribly scarred face, it gives Grania the chance to teach him how to speak and bring him back to life after weeks of shutting himself away in silence. Grania’s older brother, who’s always had a bad lung and can’t join up, gets the white feather treatment from the daughter of the town busybody, and her academically gifted younger brother lies about his age three times, and finally manages to join up and get himself sent to the trenches. He survives, as does Jim, as does Grania despite a near-fatal dose of Spanish Flu. But there have to be some dead bodies – novelists writing about this war always seem like the wielders of absolute and quite arbitrary power – and these are Irish, killed a few weeks, or even days, from the end of the war by one of those shells that leaves nothing to bury and Mamo, killed by the flu. Some First World War novelists kill their main characters; others kill the main characters’ friends. Go figure.

So, what is there to like? For a start, we get less of the war, so there can’t be so many familiar-sounding things happening. And we don’t get so many of the letters that Jim only writes in his head. I forgot to mention these in Part 3, literary-sounding first-person observations of the war and its effect on him, a million miles from the stilted, self-censored letters he actually writes. They don’t quite work because the conceit seems so unnecessary, and the style is so implausible. They sound as though they’re written by a poet, somebody a bit like Frances Itani.

What we get more of, obviously, is the effect of war on the civilian population, and this is less prone to cliché. On leave in England, Jim is struck by how lacking in understanding the civilian population is. They have no idea of conditions in the trenches, and as far back as the early chapters of Part 3 Jim has realised that he will never, ever be able to tell anybody about it. (By the end of Part 4 he considers the war to be a kind of self-contained universe – I’m paraphrasing – invented by the army and forever closed to outsiders.)

Meanwhile in Canada there are the clippings from newspapers, mainly from The Canadian, the paper produced by the deaf school. These have appeared at the head of most chapters in the novel, and during the war they are, inevitably, crass. In the ‘Acknowledgments’ Itani tells us these quotations are, ‘by and large’, as she found them. She must have cheered when she found one quoting with approval a translation of the very line that Wilfred Owen lambasts in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, his most famous poem: ‘It is just as pleasant and grand a thing to die for Canada and the British Empire today as it was for Rome in the brave days of old.’ Like Owen, she contrasts this with the reality of trench warfare – but, because we’ve had 80 years for his point to sink in, she doesn’t need to tell us it’s a lie. She simply presents it alongside what she is determined to show of the devastating effects on families of news from the war. An old friend, Kay, is sent deep into a kind of permanent grieving by the death of her husband. A family friend arrives at the hotel in an almost catatonic state that looks like mere drunkenness but is mainly the effect of the telegram he’s just received about his son. (I was genuinely moved by his frenzied playing of a tune on the piano, that Grania eventually finds out is ‘The Irish Laddies to the War Have Gone’.)

And there’s Kenan, sucked deep inside himself by the injuries he wants to hide from the town, and the effect of this on Tress. She seems perpetually angry even after Grania discovers she can help, until Mamo – not dead yet, obviously – sends the sisters away to the capital for a few days. And, at the point I’ve reached, we don’t know what the effect on Jim is going to be. His last chapter in Part IIII ends with him so shocked by the death of Irish and the injured man they were carrying that he can hardly remember his own name when asked for it. Significantly – Itani likes significant – he first comes up with Grania’s name for him, Chim. I bet he’ll need some looking after when he finally gets home in Part 5, set in 1919. I’m also betting that Grania will be able to give it to him.

Style note: one of Grania’s chapters is in the present tense. It’s the one in which she and Tress get away from it all for a few days. Ok. A more impressive chapter is near the end of the section, in which we witness her illness from the inside. Apart from the hackneyed idea of Death as a figure in the room, who only slowly retreats into the furthest corner, this is quite plausible. Itani lets us know of Mamo’s death long before the doctors allow Grania to be told and, because we really have seen how important she is in Grania’s development, it’s rather moving to see how she responds. And another loss she has to cope with, now I think about it – Itani seems to be getting used to playing God – is of all that luxuriant red hair of hers. Haven’t I mentioned her wonderful hair, to go with all her other qualities? I’m betting that it’ll grow back – and I’ve not long to wait to find out: Part 5, the final section, is only 20-odd pages.

One last thing I’ve just realised. Early on I was predicting that this was going to be a novel about books, and that they would always be crucial for Grania. Wrong. It’s about stories, narratives, the ways we have of making sense of what happens to us. It’s obvious now I think of it. It’s not just the mythologising of the family that Mamo goes in for in Part 1 – her husband’s death and burial at sea, the way Grania’s parents met, the birth of Grania herself – but Jim’s two versions of the narrative of his experiences. Grania, too, parcels up her life into snippets of a bigger plot. In italics, we get the Edward Gorey-like captions to formative events, based on those pages in the rope-letter book. The boy was punished and was locked in. (That’s referring to Kenan.) And often in this version she is Dulcie: Let us run for it, said Dulcie. Or, significantly, What is real and what is not? asked Dulcie. You bet she did. Just scanning through the pages now, italics litter the page as she tries to make sense of things, using phrases borrowed from the book or family sayings. It seems to work for her.

16 July
Part 5, 1919
Short, as I said. Not just this section, which is more of a coda to what we’ve already encountered than a resolution of difficulties, but also Grania’s hair. Not luxuriant, as I predicted, but thin, soft, no longer so red.

There are things about this book that I like, from the main characters’ valiant attempts to make sense of their lives, to details of behaviour or feeling, to the world of deafness Itani attempts to portray. But… well, I’ve said. Every page might well have something of interest but, God, it’s a plodding read. In this section we see Grania’s slow recovery through the winter and into the spring, see her contemplating the growing closeness between Kay and the brother with the lung condition, feel for her concern about the coolness between her parents, witness her attempts to assure her sister that Kenan will emerge from his self-imposed cocoon. The method she uses for the last of these explains something about that canvas bag. When she and Mamo had gone hunting for rocks, they had been doing nothing of the kind. When things are bad – those italics again – you go out and smash some crockery. I found myself liking that.

What we get, basically, is confirmation of everything we knew from the start about Grania and her family. The Acknowledgments confirm something else: the germ of this novel is Itani’s own family history as she thanks the ‘eleven hearing children of her late, deaf grandmother.’ Clearly, nothing comes close to the tie of blood. Correction: in this universe, marriage comes close, can even – cue the music Grania can’t hear – be as strong. In the final chapter we get the meeting between her and Jim, and it’s everything you would expect. What else would it be?

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