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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Reading Diary #1: Frances Itani's Deafening


I wasn't sure if I was going to blog about Frances Itani's Deafening or not. I'm already half way through it and I'd like to write more frequently than that. However, I'd like to start with a Canadian book, so this will have to do. I picked this book because it's a contender in Canada Reads 2006 not because I had heard of it before. I'm a huge fan of this program and look forward to reading the books so much that I'm glued to the radio each December waiting to hear the picks and begin reading to get them completed by April. That won't be difficult this year seeing as I've already read Cocksure by Mordecai Richler and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. I'm concurrently reading Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets by Al Purdy and that only leaves Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Whew. Anyway, more on Canada Reads later and my opinions on what will win and what should win.

I was skeptical of Deafening. The story of a deaf girl in WWI era Ontario just seemed a little too politically correct and boring. But I fell for the praise printed on the back cover and online, and let's face it, I was going to read it anyway because the CBC told me I should. That said, politically correct it might be, but it isn't preachingly so. I'm not getting the look-at-how-bad-the-majority-of-Canadians-treated-deaf-people lecture I thought I was going to get. Does this mean I'm enjoying it so far? No.

I'm not sure if this is a problem with me or with Itani's writing, but I find the bombardment of symbolism distracting. Now, I've been reading a lot of poetry lately in which I try hard to search for such things so maybe it's not as blatant as it's appearing to me. But rope for instance is used over and over and over as a symbol for connectedness. There's a scene that I just read where Grania and Jim (the main characters) are looking out from behind a clock. And it doesn't stop at symbolism. Grania is shown early on in the book to be somewhat afraid of the dark as she feels in those moments stripped of the one sense she could rely on for security. Now Jim is lying in the darkness in war-stricken France and he says, "Sound is always worse in the dark." This contrast of characters, the ubiquitous symbolism, the deaf girl in Central Canada with a husband fighting in WWI, all seems a little too perfect for a highschool English lit course. But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe I'm just becoming a better reader, now more aware of things not everyone finds blatant. If that's so, I still have a way to go so that it's not distracting to the plot because in all honesty, I don't really care about what happens to Grania or Jim. As callous as that sounds, the characters will leave me, I will forget Grazia, and I'm not particularly moved thus far despite what Charles Frazier, Richard B. Wright, or Allistair MacLeod might say on the back.

Also, I'm finding the whole book a little too fictional. The love story is filled with overly sentimental cliches and unbelievable dialogue which veers so little from the rest of the story telling that basically it seems that Francis Itani is simply speaking through the characters. And is it just me or are the names in this book a bit much? Mamo? Grania? Fry?Kenan? Tress? Cora? I've heard of some of these names once or twice before, but really? Don't these sound a bit too "out there" to all appear in the same book? I know times have changed but even tracing my family tree, the most bizarre name I find is Isaac. These implausible details just add to the tacked-on feel of WWI facts. Often the war descriptions feel like Itani just cut and pasted transcripts of interviews with vets.

On those harsh words, I haven't yet finished the book and time is running out. I borrowed this book from the local library through the interlibrary loans program and it's due back on the 6th. It'll either be late or I need a snow day to get through this thing! I'll reserve further comments (good or bad) on it until I'm done. For now:

1. How do the comments on the back of a book affect your feelings about it?
2. Can an acute knowledge of symbolism and other literary techniques actually distract from one's connectnedness to a story?
3. Do you find the character names phoney or realistic?

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