I can’t quite recall how I heard about Anna Romer’s Thornwood House; it may have been through a review for the Australian Women Writer’s challenge last year, which described it as ‘Australian rural Gothic’, a style I’m interested in writing. At any rate, I left it on my desk when I went away for Christmas and, facing overdue library fines when I came back, figured I had better read it in a hurry. Then work and life got in the way, and only now am I getting to the review after a general clean up of my desktops – both wooden & computer. My timing, however delayed, is apt, as it’s the National Week of Deaf People.
The story revolves around Audrey Kepler, who is bequeathed the homestead of Thornwood in Queensland when her estranged partner Tony dies, and moves there with her 11 year old daughter. The house was owned by Tony’s grandfather, Samuel, who was accused of murdering his wife in 1946. Audrey becomes obsessed with finding out the house’s history, and whether or not Samuel was innocent. In doing so, she also uncovers the motivations behind Tony’s peculiar personality.
The novel turned out to be general fiction, which isn’t my cup of tea because the language doesn’t usually captivate me. It didn’t here, either, not least because there were too many clichés. About a third of the way in I was contemplating whether to give up (which I rarely do, because I know how involved it is to write these damn things, although Lionel Shriver begs to differ), when one of the male characters, Danny, turned out to be deaf. I perked up immediately, because not only was he deaf, he was also hot, ‘in his mid-thirties; dark-haired, nicely muscled. He wore only jeans: ragged at the cuffs, torn at the knees, low-slung beneath a tanned stomach’ (89).
Danny signs, lipreads and uses a notebook for people who don’t know sign language. Romer captures the discomfort hearing people sometimes feel when deaf people watch them intently to listen, and uses this to add to the sexual charge between Audrey and Danny: ‘It was disconcerting to have a man pay such close attention to my mouth, especially when I was talking’ (171). She also captures the beauty of sign language when she writes, ‘Danny made a lazy sign, knowing full well I couldn’t read it. His hands were large and lightly freckled, graceful’ (108). Danny refuses to speak because his voice sounds strange, but by the end of the novel there’s the suggestion that he’s about to counter this and start trying, which I liked. Although there is a long and troubled history of forcing the deaf to speak, in this instance it was used to show that Danny is accepting this part of himself, even though he is otherwise appealingly confident about his disability.
Donna McDonald, author of The Art of Being Deaf, has written about on literary representations of deaf people. Often, such representations have been overwhelmingly negative, focussed not so much on how it’s possible to live in the world as a deaf person, but on how awful it is to lose one’s hearing. Well, sure it’s difficult to be deaf, but you don’t need to have a pity party over it – life’s too short for that. I have found it rewarding to be deaf – it has made me more attuned to other people, particularly minorities; it has made me more observant and I have become a far more interesting person than I might otherwise have been. As I’ve noted in a guest post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I also almost certainly wouldn’t have been a writer if I wasn’t deaf.
Which is why I was so pleased to see a positive portrayal of a deaf character in a book - it reflects the experiences of those who find deafness adds to their lives, rather than detracting.
Book details: Romer, Anna. Thornwood House. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 6th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge