Deafening

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories of love in a time of war. This is the second in a series of four book reviews on that theme. The first, thoughts on Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze, can be found here.

Deafening by Frances ItaniFrances Itani’s Deafening features two highly distinct narrative parts. It begins as the story of a young girl from a small town in Ontario who, after contracting Scarlet Fever, loses her hearing at five years of age. The majority of the first part of the book follows Grania’s struggle to learn language, to develop literacy (both literal and emotional) and, as a result, to learn how to form and maintain relationships after having lost her hearing at such a crucial stage in childhood development.

The latter part of the book focuses on the sustaining bond between Grania and her husband, a hearing man who becomes an ambulance driver in France during World War I — leaving his home and his wife a mere two weeks after the wedding to begin his long, brutal tour of duty. One of the greatest and most terrible strengths of this story is Itani’s ability to immerse the reader in a portrait of life on the horrific frontlines of the war. Like most boys who went to battle in the early days of “the war to end all wars,” Jim arrives in Europe woefully naïve and ill-prepared (as if once could prepare) for the nightmare that lies before him. And so the reader — perhaps feeling the omniscient dread of one in possession of knowledge the characters could not possible obtain — experiences the loss of innocence and life-altering effects of war alongside Jim.

From a strictly narrative perspective, the relationship between Grania and Jim seems to be a pretty minor part of the story, functioning almost a trope of wartime relationships rather than a depiction of a specific and defined relationship between two real people. This sense of generalization is enhanced by the fact that Itani has made the interesting choice of having most of the love story unfold almost entirely outside of the text itself. But the result of these decisions is clearly quite intentional Grania and Jim’s love functions as an anchor for both characters, connecting them across time and space and unimaginably divergent experiences. Grounding them — and the concept of love — as they lead seemingly separate lives. Lives that might, otherwise, seem nearly devoid of hope and warmth.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

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