4.4 7
by Frances Itani

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Set during 1915-19 in Canada, United States, England, Belgium and France, this is the story of a young woman in her 20’s, Grania O’ Neill (pronounced GRAW-NEE-YA, an Irish name meaning “Love”), profoundly deaf from the age of 5 as a result of scarlet fever. She marries Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who, 2 weeks after their marriage, leaves home


Set during 1915-19 in Canada, United States, England, Belgium and France, this is the story of a young woman in her 20’s, Grania O’ Neill (pronounced GRAW-NEE-YA, an Irish name meaning “Love”), profoundly deaf from the age of 5 as a result of scarlet fever. She marries Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who, 2 weeks after their marriage, leaves home in Ontario to serve his King and country and “do his bit for Mother England.” Jim tries in every possible way to understand his wife’s experience of deafness, and together they explore their love through the silence in which she lives.

Jim is trained as a stretcher-bearer in one of the large camps on the southeast coast of England. He serves in Belgium and France with Number 9 Canadian Field Ambulance. His war experiences, friendships, and care of the dying and wounded during this brutal war of attrition, are moving, intimately detailed and carefully researched to show the realities of the life of a stretcher bearer serving in the front lines.

On the home front, Grania’s childhood in a small town on the edge of Lake Ontario, where her father owns a hotel; and as a residential student at “The Institution for the Deaf and Dumb” in a small Ontario city. A bright child, she has to learn “real” sign language (which replaces the private language she and her sister had, as small children, invented). She also learns, by necessity, extreme self-discipline and control over her emotions, which enables her to survive the trauma of leaving home and the facts of institutional life with 300 other deaf children around her. No visits home are permitted during the school year.

Grania’s Mother, guilt-ridden and never accepting of Grania’s deafness, tries to make Grania hear. She tries for cures by miracle, and by taking her to Rochester, New York, in hopes of finding specialized medical treatment.

Grania’s early experiences inside her own silence and within a family that tries to overprotect—despite her gradually developing independence and strengths—later illuminate the complexity of her adult relationships: with her closest deaf friend, Fry; with her older sister Tress—who was once her lifeline; with her Irish Grandmother, “Mamo” (the most important person in her life at home and the one who teaches her to read and to speak, and whose love twice—in separate ways—saves Grania’s life); with her 2 brothers; and with her parents.

After Jim departs for the war, both Grania and her sister move back to their parents’ home and hotel, where everyone in the family helps out with the hotel business.

The tension in the book is held through the juxtaposition of two worlds: the world of war, violence and sound as shown through Jim’s horrific experiences at the Front (which include several major battles); and life for Grania inside the silence of her own world during the long years of waiting on the home front—where news is frequently bad as more and more local boys are reported killed in the war.

Grania’s brother-in-law, Kenan, returns from the war in early 1918. He is wounded and mutilated and has stopped speaking. It is Grania who, with her extensive speech training recalled from residential schooldays, makes the breakthrough to Kenan’s speech. But this success creates resentment in her sister because Kenan is not able to confide or share his war experience with his young wife.

Events move quickly toward resolution as first, Spanish flu sweeps through the town ( a deadly pandemic), followed by Armistice (Nov 1918) and eventual demobilization. A moving sequence of events with her sister releases tensions between Grania and Tress. The loss of Mamo finally leads to the release of emotions Grania has never permitted herself to express.

In the spring of 1919, Jim returns home. He and Grania have survived, but their separate experiences have altered them forever. Jim has been part of events that “the mind will gorge upon in horror forever.” He has lost his closest friend from the war, a man who has been a brother to him. But it is his love for Grania that has kept him going.

Grania realizes, the instant she sees Jim, that neither of them will ever totally understand what the other has been through. Together they accept the realization that, in context of their love for each other, not understanding, not knowing, will have to be enough to move them forward.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
...[D]espite all the pleasures Itani is able to deliver, her decision to split the book into Grania's and Jim's chapters ends up causing a fatal falling-off in momentum. It is as if three books -- one concerning Grania's childhood, another concerning her life on the home front and the third detailing Jim's army experience -- were uneasily trying to coexist within one cover. The conversation Itani is able to create among these three narratives is insufficient to the task of calling them into unity. Though Deafening flows admirably in the early going, it ends up being more memorable for its failures than for this early success. — Mark Baechtel
Publishers Weekly
War and deafness are the twin themes of this psychologically rich, impeccably crafted debut novel set during WWI. Born in the late 19th century, Grania O'Neill comes from solid middle-class stock, her father a hotel owner in Deseronto, Ontario, her mother a God-fearing daughter of an Irish immigrant. When Grania is five, she loses her hearing to scarlet fever. When she is nine, she is sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Belleville and given an education not only in lipreading, signing and speaking but also in emotional self-sufficiency. After graduating, she works as a nurse in the Belleville hospital, where she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd. They marry, but Jim is bound for the war as a stretcher bearer. His war is hell on earth: lurid wounds; stinks; sudden, endless slaughter redeemed only by comradeship. Itani's remarkably vivid, unflinching descriptions of his ordeal tend to overshadow Grania's musings on the home front, but Grania's story comes to the fore again when her brother-in-law and childhood friend, Kenan, comes back to Deseronto from the trenches in Europe with a dead arm and a half-smashed face, refusing to speak. Grania, who was educated to configure sounds she couldn't hear into words that "the hearing" could understand, brings Kenan back to life by teaching him sounds again, and then by making portraits of the people in the town whom she, Kenan and her sister Tress know in common. As she talks to Kenan, she reinvigorates him with a sense that his life, having had such a rich past, must have a future, too. This subplot eloquently expresses Itani's evident, pervasive faith in the unexpected power of story to not only represent life but to enact itself within lives. Her wonderfully felt novel is a timely reminder of war's cost, told from an unexpected perspective. (Sept.) Forecast: Itani's first novel is reminiscent of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and has a good chance of striking a similar popular chord, backed up by a 100,000 first printing, $100,000 promo budget and a 17-city author tour. Foreign rights sold in 12 countries. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Scarlet fever robs Grania O'Neill of her hearing when she is five years old. After learning to sign and read lips, she is sent, at nine, to the Ontario School for the Deaf. Determined to make a life for herself without becoming a burden to her family, Grania works at the school hospital after graduation until she meets and marries Jim Lloyd. Shortly after their wedding, he heads off to the Great War as a stretcher bearer. Award-winning Canadian writer Itani does a good job of presenting her considerable research into education for the hearing-impaired in the early 20th century, small-town Canadian life, and World War I trench warfare, without allowing the details to overshadow what is essentially a character study and romance. Lorraine Hamelin reads with both sensitivity and humor and handles Grania's dialog well, making it sound realistic and intelligible. Sections of Deafening could easily have come across as too sentimental or too grim, but Hamelin keeps the emotional elements under control. Recommended for all collections.-Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 saveher. 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. First printing of 100,000; $100,000 ad/promo; author tour. Agent: Jackie Kaiser/Westwood Creative Artists

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Go to my room." Mamo is pointing to the floor above. "Bring the package on my bureau."

Grania watches her grandmother's lips. She understands, pushes aside the heavy tapestry curtain that keeps the draught from blowing up the stairs, and runs up to the landing. She pauses long enough to glance through the only window in the house that is shaped like a porthole, even though it's at the back of the house and looks over land, not water. She peers down into the backyard, sees the leaning fence, the paddock and, over to the right, the drive sheds behind Father's hotel. Far to the left, over the top of the houses on Mill Street, she can see a rectangle of field that stretches in the opposite direction, towards the western edge of town. A forked tree casts a long double shadow that has begun its corner-to-corner afternoon slide across the field. Remembering her errand, Grania pulls back, runs to Mamo's room, finds the package tied up in a square of blue cloth and carries it, wrapped, to the parlour. Mamo pulls a low chair over beside her rocker. Her rocker moves with her, out to the veranda, back to the parlour, out to the veranda again.

"Sit here," her lips say.

Grania watches. Her fingers have already probed the package on the way down the stairs, and she knows it is a book. At a nod from Mamo she unties the knot and folds back the cloth. The first thing she sees on the cover is a word, a word picture. The word is made of yellow rope and twines its way across the deck of a ship where a bearded captain steers and a barefoot boy sits on a rough bench beside him. The boy is reading a book that is identical to the one in Grania's hands-it has the same cover. The sea and sky and sails in the background are soft blues and creams and browns.

Grania knows the rope letters because, after the scarlet fever, she relearned the alphabet with Mamo. The yellow letters curve and twist in a six-letter shape.

"Sunday," Mamo says. "The title of the book is Sunday, but you may keep the book in your room and look at it any time you want. Every day, we will choose a page and you will learn the words under the picture. Yes?" Eyebrows up. A question.

The book is for her. This she understands. Yes. Her fingers roam the cover but she has to be still or she will give Mamo the fidgets.

"There are many words in the book," Mamo says. "So many words." She taps her fingertips against the cover. "Some day, you will know them all." She mutters to herself, "If you can say a word, you can use it," not knowing how much Grania has understood. "We will do this, word by word-until your parents make up their minds to do something about your schooling. You've already lost one year, and a valuable part of another."

Mamo's finger points at the book and her eyes give the go-ahead flicker. Grania opens the stiff cover and turns the blank sheet that follows. The word Sunday is on the inside, too, but this time its letters are dark and made of twigs instead of yellow rope. The page that follows the twigs is in colour.

A brown-and-white calf has stopped on a grassy path and is staring at a girl. The girl is approaching from the opposite direction. She seems to be the same size and age as Grania; she might be seven or eight. Only the back of her can be seen-blue dress, black stockings, black shoes. Her hat, daisies tumbling from the crown, droops from one hand. A doll wearing a red dress dangles limply from the other. The doll's hair is as red as Grania's. No one in the picture is moving. The calf looks too startled to lift a hoof.

Grania points to two words beneath the picture and looks at Mamo's mouth.

"'BOTH AFRAID,'" Mamo reads.

The first sound erupts from Grania's lips. "BO," she says. "BO."

Mamo makes the TH shape with her tongue. "BO-TH."

Grania tries over and over, watching Mamo's lips. TH is not so easy. She already knows AFRAID. Afraid is what she is every night in the dark.

"Practise," Mamo tells her. She lifts herself out of the rocker, leaving behind the scent of Canada Bouquet, the perfume she chose because of its name and because she chose this country and because of the stench of the ship she left behind many years ago, and because Mr. Eaton sends the perfume from his mail-order catalogue in tiny bottles that cost forty-one cents. The air flutters like a rag as she walks away.

Grania breathes deeply, inhaling the scent. She sniffs the closed book and squeezes it to her as if it might get away. Both and afraid roll together, thick and half-new on her tongue. She runs upstairs to the room she shares with her older sister. Tress is stretched out reading her own book, The Faeries. Sometimes, Mamo and Tress read aloud to each other, after Tress walks home from school. Grania watches their lips, but she doesn't know the stories.

"Say," Grania says to Tress. She points to the words beneath the picture. "Say in my ear."

Tress's glance takes in the new book. She knows it is a gift from Mamo. "What's the use?" she says. "You won't hear." She shakes her head, No.

"Shout," says Grania.

"You still won't hear."

"Shout in my ear." She narrows her voice so that Tress will understand that she is not going to go away. She turns her head to the side and feels Tress's cupped hands and two explosive puffs of air.

Tress listens as Grania practises, "BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID."

"Pretty good," her mouth says. She shrugs and goes back to The Faeries. ©2003 by Frances Itani. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Frances Itani is the author of four acclaimed short story collections and has written stories, drama, and features for CBC Radio. She divides her time between Ottawa and Geneva. Deafening is her American debut.

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Deafening 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you liked All the Light You Cannot See you will love this incredible book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent!!!  Wonderful story.  Great historical fiction.  Highly recommended!!!  I learned a lot about being deaf during the early 1900s as well as information about WW One!  Characters were fully developed and interesting.  I really cared about what was happening to them during this trying time.  I have just purchased any book by this author on my NOOK!  Another well-written historical fiction is The Partisan by William Jarvis.  This outstanding book just won an Indie Medalian Award.  Both books deserve an A+++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Felt more like a teaching lesson than a novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Life is a complicated thing one can describe. People cannot easily accept the physically disadvantaged, and it leads to utter frustration. This book by Francis Itani touched my heart, as it is the first of a kind I have come across in my life. I must admit it that I have been very eager to read the lives of the deaf community, other than Helen Keller, Thomas Edison and Beethoven. But this book, Deafening gives the true insight of the lives of Grania and Jim, and how they created their own ways to communicate - its a very sweet and romantic thing to do together. Deafening is just magnificent with its beautiful expressions and thoughts that come straight from the heart, and though it is sad to know about Grania's condition, there is not a trace of sympathy she expected from the people around her, which shows her grit and confidence. Never in my life could I imagine a deaf individual living with a hearing individual ~ its not impossible, but looks pretty unrealistic. I appeal to readers to help the physically disadvantaged as much as possible, and never let them feel socially cut-off in any situation. The world is definitely cruel, but people should show little consideration, as it would do them good too. My final word - 'Break the barriers and build the bonds'...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Deafening is a treasure. Itani conveys Grania¿s story so closely and carefully to her reader. Grania is a character I will always remember for her intelligence, her courage, and her ability to overcome. Itani does an admirable job illustrating the relationship dynamics between Grania and her family members and friends. I was moved by Itani's rendition of how Grania¿s mother, father and grandmother all dealt with her hearing loss. The human element is always apparent: anger, denial and acceptance. Itani brings to life Grania and her story.