by Louise Stern
208 pages, Granta Books
Review by Bill Kirton
Louise Stern is the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf. She was brought up in America but has lived in London since 2002. Chattering: Stories is her first book and it’s a revelation.
First, there’s her mastery of the medium. Short stories are coming back into fashion and their flexibility is part of their charm. But Stern brings to hers a style and a distinct voice which give them a lasting resonance. They seem so artless, so direct and simple, and yet their characters and situations – none particularly weird or extreme, quite the reverse, in fact – stay with you and you know that the stories are continuing somewhere. The people move through them, connecting with one another then separating, without fanfare or drama, and easing into whatever their next phase will be. Stern makes us care about them and yet they themselves seek nothing from us. Their stories are told (sometimes by a narrator, sometimes by themselves), and then they move on.
Then, over all this, there’s the fact that nearly all of them are deaf. Not only does this put them in a world which is alien to hearing readers, it also allows Stern to reveal to us the limitations of both sides. And she does so effortlessly – well, that’s how it seems. Look at a sentence like ‘I wondered if it was because she could speak that she knew how to deposit the sorrow outside herself so efficiently’. It’s compelling not just because of its value as characterisation but also in what it says about language itself. She writes of ‘holding on’ to and ‘leaving’ conversations; they’re supremely physical events, with some signing more elegantly than others. The language shared by the deaf is ‘solid’ and she regrets the inaccessibility of the ‘subtleties’ of written and spoken language. And yet her descriptions of the story-telling abilities of some of her characters suggest a physical and emotional involvement in signing stories and conversations which is absent from ‘normal’ speech. (I’m always aware of the need to put that word in quotes but reading these stories makes it even more of an imperative.)
This physicality of signing colours Stern’s perceptions and gives her a unique register to convey people’s presence. A character doesn’t want to meet clients in their own homes ‘with their things and their own smell around them’, the bodies of the hearing teachers are ‘stupid and heavy’, cars driving by are ‘filled with hard bright people heading out and soft tired people heading home from work’, a woman has ‘a soft body and grey-streaked hair’.
Naturally enough, themes of noise and silence recur. She feels all the noise of the silent city ‘squished up in its hiding places, tensed with energy, ready to jump out again’ and the silence that surrounds her and her deaf characters is ‘potential and remains only potential. It is like water, the liquid clear and thin, something you can feel but not hold down in any way’.
And when she does use words to convey what someone is signing, it’s a fascinating display of how much of the language we use is superfluous but also of how comprehensive her own control of it is. A character speaks of a couple of his friends: ‘You know who my friend Mike, we grow up together? Big man, sweet, curly hair, little bit cross-eye? Wife fat? Anyway, really Mike self-brother Eddie, but they different, wow. Really parents, them-two good people, deaf both, never college, Eddie father-self work hard printer same your grandpa. Union together. Mike, good man, same father. Eddie, bad boy, party-party always.’ It conveys the seeming lack of fluidity of signing and yet also its dynamism.
But I don’t want to give the impression that these stories are part of some sort of treatise on deafness; they’re about people, lives which interweave and separate, collections of moments that cohere then dissipate. They’re haunting, perfectly executed cameos – eminently readable, apparently simple and yet carrying layers of experience. Stern is someone who uses language without ostentation and yet with real impact. As well as transporting me into the world of her characters, she also made me think once more about language – its limitations and its possibilities.