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Ellen Lark was born hearing but an illness in childhood results in complete hearing loss. Her family develop their own sign language and communicate smoothly, but as she grows older and she must find a way in the world her mother considers her options. Originally she is intended to study at a deaf school where communication will be in sign language, but her grandmother has other ideas and she is forced to an oral school where the aim is to develop the student’s speech to the point where their deafness is unnoticeable. This is as a concession to hearing people rather than as a benefit to the students who find it much easier to communicate in sign. A repeated theme throughout is how difficult relying on lip-reading is and how much is missed. Eventually Ellen comes into contact with Alexander Graham Bell and his Visible Speech, a system where the movement of the mouth and tongue are symbolised so words can be formed without knowing what’s being said. The glaringly obvious problem with this is that it does not aid the person speaking it but merely creates a type of party trick, a way to make hearing people more comfortable.
This dive into deaf history and the discrimination faced by those who wish to use sign language is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but the plot also focuses on Bell’s attempts to progress his inventions. There is some intrigue with a rival and the suspicion of spying that led to two patents being submitted on the same day. The narrative jumps between Ellen’s youth and several years later when Bell is leading up to demonstrating his new invention - the telephone. The period between the two timelines closes as the story progresses and the technique is not entirely successful. The switch in time is only denoted by the heading of a different city and it can be a little disorienting. I didn’t personally find it added anything to the story to know that things had become fraught later on before we reached it in the earlier narrative, and the closening in time made the jumps even less relevant. A straightforward narrative may have helped build connection to some of the characters, and given them more of an introduction than the slightly confusing structure allows.
Ellen becomes quite taken with Bell when he is teaching her, her youth showing through as she hopes to impress him and hold on to the belief that he shares things with her he doesn’t with his other pupils. He is impressed with her lip-reading abilities and so she is reluctant to admit how ineffective it is. She hates to think that he speaks to her more slowly than he does with hearing people, that he sees her only as a student. In time, she has to accept that his affections lie elsewhere, and ultimately, that he is not a true ally of the deaf community. When she meets Frank, a deaf printmaker who is steadfastly against Visible Speech she sees what life can be surrounded by people who sign. He also confronts her with some difficult truths about Bell who in turn reveals some unfortunate events from Frank’s past. Their relationship is difficult but it’s clear there is genuine affection between them, and it is a stark contrast to her relationship with her fiancé, with whom we see very little desire.
She often feels out of place in both hearing and deaf circles as her signing is not strong due to her oral education, and she comments on how unnatural communication is with hearing people. She misses out on side jokes and chit-chat. It is exhausting constantly trying to understand what is being said around her, and she even writes an essay on homophenes - words where the lip shape matches that of a different word. It really drives home the fact that lip reading can be useful to aid comprehension but is incredibly difficult to rely on entirely. Throughout we see people look on sign language as animalistic, unintelligent and uncouth. It is sad to witness this discrimination and refusal to allow people the ability to communicate in their own language. This is a very real part of deaf history, and one that is only recently being turned around.
This is a beautifully written novel which allows us to see the world through Ellen’s eyes. The descriptions of signs are written in such a way that those who know BSL will recognise them, and those who don’t will easily be able to picture the movements. This is a coming of age novel with Ellen trying to find her voice in a world which tries to silence it. A promising debut.