Book Review: Deafening

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Elegantly written and profoundly moving.

Those words above are the ones used to describe Deafening. Absolutely. Better words could not have been chosen.

Beautiful. Epic in scope and this story gave me the same sense I found in No Man’s Land –  like those parts where you felt as though you were right there experiencing the war. Deafening is written with the same beautiful prose found in The Summer Before the War, so it is little wonder that I fell deeply in love with it as much as I did these two wonderful other novels.

Deafening begins with the story of Grania and how scarlet fever left her deaf at the age of five. The first part of the book tells of the struggle she has with her mother about getting into a deaf school. Her champion is her grandmother, Mamo and her lifeline and help with communicating is with her sister Tress. After graduating and remaining to work at the school, she meets her future husband Jim. Deafening however not only tells us the life story of Grania (and Tress and Grania’s family), but in the later parts of the book on how the impact the war touches everyone in their town. The devastation the entire town feels when a telegram stating one of their own has been killed. How the town was supporting the men overseas, how they were handling every day life without thinking too much of “over there” (as Grania says).

“When dispatches came in, the lists were posted on boards outside. Missing, Wounded, Prisoners of War, Burials, Gas Burns, Transferred to hospital, Removed to England, Died, Killed in Action. How could one keep going, when all the news was bad? There’ll be no one left, she thought. Soon, there will be no one left.”

What exquisite timing I had for picking this book up to read just as I was enjoying the Canada Day holiday. Itani has a mention of Dominion Day (now our Canada Day) and it happened to also fall on a Saturday. And, also, when Canada is honouring 100 years since Vimy Ridge, these two coincidental moments appear in the novel, making my reading experience that much more special.

Saturday. It is July first, the Dominion Day holiday.”

Every event reported was worse than the last – except Vimy Ridge, almost a year ago. That had been good news. A great Canadian victory. But rejoicing was bittersweet when thousands of boys went down. No one who lost a husband or son, a brother or father, was jumping for joy after Vimy – despite what was written in the papers. Jim had been at Vimy. He had written about the mixed mood after the victory. The burial parties and stretcher bearers had followed the advancing troops and there was a good deal of sorrow, as well as elation, during those heady days.”

Itani wrote a sequel to Deafening, and Tell brilliantly begins where Deafening ends, in some ways. Instead of the story centering on Grania, Tell brings us more into Kenan’s story – Grania’s sister Tess’ husband – after his return from the war. So often throughout Deafening Grania would say “tell”, “tell” when demanding information that she could not hear. I thought this so interesting and really grew to really love and appreciate that she titled the book, Tell.  I read it before Deafening, even though I have had Deafening on my shelf for quite a long time. However, at no time did I feel like I missed out because I read Tell first. In fact, I think I liked this order in how I read these two beautiful novels. It allowed me to pay better attention nd pick up on these details in Deafening that bled into Tell – like this subtle repetition of Grania saying “tell, tell, tell.” Deafening is the time before and during the Great War and its impact on small town Ontario. Tell is the aftermath, the return of Kenan and his life in that same small town of Deseronto, Ontario.

What came through strongly as well in Deafening was this sense of  friendship – of solid, needed, relied upon friendships of the men while at war. I wept when Jim’s friend Stash was killed, but when his very best friend, and the one that Grania said she was sorry she was never going to meet, Irish died…oh how my heart broke. Her powerful yet quietly told – if that is making any sense? stories of the friendship between Jim and Irish and with Stash- you truly felt nothing but great despair and loss when those two men were killed in action. The emotion – so powerfully, yet still so quietly told. The loss they felt was vividly portrayed – after months of battling brave and treacherous battles, the wounds, the dying, the brutality – they were able to find some comfort and close camaraderie in their friendships – how devastating it was when they lost them. Beautifully and so achingly well described. This was also something Tolkien’s No Man’s Land captured so strongly – the intensity, emotion and necessity of these friendships.

I re-read what I wrote for Summer Before the War, and it would have been very odd had I not loved Deafening as much as it – there were many similarities (certainly the beautiful storytelling) but perhaps it was the familiarity of small town Ontario and Canada that resonated deeply, where Simonson tells of the impact of the Great War on a small town in England.

Itani is the queen of the quietly and emotionally told story and she really shines here with Deafening. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish, but still felt sad when I did have to come to its end. 5 stars!