Frances Itani makes her American debut with this epic novel set in Ontario just prior to World War I. As a young girl, Grania O'Neill was rendered deaf by a bout with scarlet fever. As she grows older, her family decides to send her to a school for the deaf in Belleville, Ontario, and she is forced to leave behind her treasured sister, Tress; her grandmother and teacher, Mamo; and the placid life in Deseronto, Ontario, where her family runs a local hotel.
While the novel focuses on Grania learning to adapt to life in a speaking world—learning how to lip-read, sign and speak—Itani also depicts the reaction of others to Grania and her deafness. Her mother prays constantly for a miracle cure, her Mamo has tried to teach her to talk and her sister has developed a wordless communication system with Grania. But it is the man she marries, Jim Lloyd, a doctor's assistant in Belleville, who not only communicates with Grania but also tries to understand her life in a world absent of sound.
Itani also uses their relationship to create an emotionally charged depiction of the horrors of war (as faced by Jim on the WWI front lines) and the desperation felt by those left behind (that Grania faces). But it is her lyrical writing and understanding of the dimensions of character that give this novel star quality. (Sep., 400 pp., $24.00)