Written by: David Lodge
Published by: Penguin
Widge’s Note: Everyone, please welcome new book reviewer Orla.
In Deaf Sentence, David Lodge has portrayed the difficulties posed by being hard of hearing exactly as one would expect them to be. And worse. He looks at Desmond Bates, a linguistics lecturer and his gradual decline into inevitable deafness.
Mundane daily activities are broken down as bigger and scarier challenges that most of us wouldn’t think twice about. For example, Bates had to retire early from the university because he could no longer hear his students’ questions. He has a special phone installed in his house. He has to wear a hearing aid as soon as he gets up so he can converse with his wife at breakfast. He often goes through entire conversations with strangers nodding blankly because he is too embarrassed to interrupt and confess his dilemma. Bates is a curmudgeonly man who lost his first wife to cancer. Having remarried to a divorcÃ©e Winnifred, eight years his junior, he has another chance at married life. But she soon overshadows him with her blossoming career and hectic schedule. She doesn’t have time to repeat everything she says to him anymore.
[ad#longpost]Bates is left at home in charge of domestic duties and longs to return to the structured university life. His children have moved away and his friends still have their careers. His elderly father is just as deaf as Desmond but without a hearing aid. He refuses to move closer to Des and constantly berates him for not visiting enough. Faced with premature retirement, Desmond has all the time in the world but cannot fill it adequately due to his disability. Instead he becomes involved with a student, Alex, who is desperate for his tutelage. But she turns out to be more challenging than he expected. Dealing with all of this, he constantly dwells on the negative and behaves almost childishly immoral on occasion.
Lodge however, has a wonderful ability to capture people’s personalities regardless of their annoyance. His in-depth knowledge of going deaf, linguistics and especially suicide notes is enlightening to novices. However, there is a great deal of academic talk, which becomes tiring late at night when you just want a story and not a mini-lecture in itself.
He switches back and forth between first and third person narrative, using Bates’ journal to really convey his anxieties and fears. This is really effective because you see the characters through the author’s and Bates’ eyes; including Desmond himself, who is a mixture of judgemental, academic arrogance and neuroses.
The main theme of the story is old age and how it can distance you from those you know and love. He explores the inevitable time in life when a child has to look after their aging parent. It’s met with frustration and despair and ultimately tests the bond of unconditional love.
It is also a typical middle-aged crisis story. Grumpy man is not impressed with life even when he has a young(er), attractive wife. There is the usual will he/won’t he sleep with his beautiful, slightly maniacal student plot. His elderly father is exasperating yet heart-breaking. Worst of all, he can’t hear what people are saying to him in crowded rooms.
The main attraction of this book is his deafness as the novel obstacle, as opposed to weight gain, loss of libido etc. Lodge deals with it accurately and humorously, the misheard conversations are particularly amusing. However, this book is not going to encourage anyone faced with an obstacle to get over it; just have them empathise with the downward spiral of their quality of life.