Deafening: Another WW1 Story that Should be a Bildungsroman

Unfortunately Frances Itani didn’t have good editorial advice. If she’d had good editorial advice she might have written two good novels instead of this one weak novel. The problem for Itani is that she wanted to tell two stories: one of the experience of a young girl growing up deaf at the turn of the century and one of WW1 trenches (because what Canadian literature needs is *another* WW1 Western Front narrative…). How are these stories connected you ask? Very, very tenuously and not at all in a way that might be loosely construed as interesting. The deaf girl, Grania, meets and falls in love with Jim in the span of six or seven pages and then he’s off to war. This rapid courtship isn’t a historical problem – certainly many couples married and separated for the duration of the war – the problem is that the reader spends the first two hundred odd pages with Grania as she grows up, figures out deaf culture, finds herself,  and then with unconvincing speed and heavy-handed touches of intimacy (she says his name “Chim” instead of “Jim” and this is supposed to be satisfactory evidence of their love) she falls in love. Unconvincing I say because the decent into love isn’t depicted. We lose a year or two of Grania’s life and those years just happen to be when she meets and falls in love with Jim. So while the reader cares very much about Grania having experienced her difficult and painful maturation, we care not a whit for her relationship with Jim.

This lack of concern is a problem because the rest of the book – the second half that is (or the second novel as it should have been) – is taken up with Jim’s experiences on the Front (the occasional return to the home-front is even more trying as we try to believe Grania’s misery and longing, but can’t because we don’t believe she fell in love in the first place). Cue the usual descriptions of rats, shell holes, dead and dying best friends, whores and friendly Belgian farmers. There’s no defense for terrible WW1 writing: if it’s going to be poorly written, just don’t bother. It’s not exactly a genre lacking in nuanced exploration or thoughtful consideration. 

And so when Jim returns (and of course he returns: this is a Love Story!) and reunits with Grania I felt not relief or joy, but a frustration and annoyance. This book could have been a unique and compelling exploration of the history of deaf culture in Ontario and the consequences of deafness on identity and relationships. Instead it’s a jammed together mess that doesn’t bear reading. 

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

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