A romance that war cannot silence

A deaf woman learns to speak in a world roaring with battle

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There's not a single false gesture in Frances Itani's "Deafening." Despite its subjects - war, romance, disability - it's a story of careful, measured emotion, bleached of all sentimentality. The publisher has positioned the novel as a debut in America, but Canadians have been reading Itani for decades, and every page of this story betrays the hands of a mature writer who knows exactly what she's doing.

The heroine, Grania O'Neill, was robbed of her hearing at the age of five by scarlet fever in the early 20th century. Itani narrates her life in a voice imbued with the cadences of the deaf girl's thoughts and sensibilities, a technique that submerges us in Grania's silent but vivid world, a place "divided into things that move and things that don't move."

Her parents are too burdened by guilt and too mired in hopes for a miracle to work with their daughter's obvious intelligence, but her grandmother remains determined to teach Grania to read. The process, so tactilely described here, involves studying simple pictures and words, feeling her grandmother's throat, and attending to the slight fluttering of others' lips. Everywhere, there are traps and tricks, puns and homonyms, silent k's and g's, nonsensical idioms, and worst of all, mustaches that camouflage the shape of speakers' words.

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But "nothing will stop Grania," Itani writes. "When she is alone she stands on tiptoe on the stoop at the back, behind the laundry, and she watches her reflected mouth in the narrow window. Hetakesabite. She studies each word separately. She holds her voice as close to herself as she can. It is like pressing a pillow against her chest, the way the boy in the picture presses the book to his sailor suit."

Showing Grania pull herself into the world of language so deliberately and with such extraordinary concentration, Itani reinvests words with an arresting power most of us have forgotten. But she wields that power with quiet, remarkable effect.

After a brief stint in a regular public classroom being alternately ignored or pitied, Grania is sent away to a progressive school for the deaf, where she cries for two weeks and then resolves never to cry again. The training - in speech and sign language - is arduous, but Grania's grandmother provided a good foundation. "Her hands, to her surprise, and jerkily at first, begin to send ideas out," Itani writes. "Her face and body punctuate; her eyes receive. She is falling into, she is entering a new world. She is joining the larger conversation of hands."

Soon after she graduates, Grania meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man. I can't remember ever feeling so greedy for more details from a novel. Grania and Jim develop an intimacy intensified by their struggle to communicate with one other, and Itani's discipline as a narrator makes their courtship all the more striking.

"She wanted to talk. The room was dark unless there was a moon, but she did not need the moon. She closed her eyes and raised the fingers of her left hand to his lips. Though at first he was astonished, he understood and began to speak. His careful words fell into her fingertips and she whispered back and they conversed like this, side by side."

Married only two weeks, Jim is sent to France as a stretcher-bearer, and the novel splits into two very different stories: One remains with Grania in Canada, and the other follows Jim into the trenches of Europe. Their experiences couldn't be more different, of course. Itani constructs a striking juxtaposition between Grania's small, silent world and the cacophony of battle that her husband endures.

But the author also hears the resonance between these two experiences: Jim's survival often depends on his ability to exercise the same attention as Grania to slight movements around him, and in the roar of shells and gunfire, his men resort to impromptu sign language. Back home, Grania battles the influenza epidemic that will eventually kill more people than the First World War.

What's particularly remarkable about this novel is that Itani's quiet, measured style, which seems so effective for describing the simple details of domestic life, becomes downright stunning when employed in her descriptions of war. From Jim's initial burst of patriotic enthusiasm, through stages of blinding terror and nausea, he trudges on for years in a world "no one would believe." These anecdotes of unrelenting chaos, gore, and waste serve as a sobering reminder of the nature of battle before technology allowed us to pretend that the process of killing other people could be precise and antiseptic.

Grania, consumed like so many women at this time with the tasks of waiting, clings to a few letters that manage to make it back to her, hoping guiltily that Jim, unlike so many others, will survive. Meanwhile, "Deafening" demonstrates a perfect ear for the tragic mingling of joy and grief at the arrival of a wounded loved one. Grania's brother-in-law, hideously disabled and shocked into silence, provides a frightening example of the alternatives to death in Europe.

One of the novel's most beautiful sections involves her efforts to help this young man emerge from the fog of his pain. There are no miracles - for Grania or her brother-in-law - but the qualities she developed as a child, her fierce attention to language and the world around her, are not easily thwarted. It's a gorgeous irony and a testament to the power of affection when the one person in his life who can't hear finally makes him speak.

"Sorrow can be borne," Grania's grandmother insists, and there's enough in this poignant story to reassure us of that promise and point to something beyond endurance. Indeed, there are passages here so beautiful that we can't help straining to hear more.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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