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The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a delightful debut about deafness

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a delightful debut about deafness

A good test of a writer is to take a high concept and stretch it. In The Hearing Test, the debut novel by American Eliza Barry Callahan, a young woman loses her hearing – or most of it – without warning. One day, she hears a “deep drone”, and then her hearing is all “rolling thunder… like God adjusting his piano stool but never getting around to the song”.

When having her sudden deafness investigated, doctors tell her she has sudden deafness, a diagnosis that reiterates the question it seeks to answer. The problem is intimately close but impossible to resolve. “We can get to the moon, but we can’t get to the inner ear,” she’s told. As a result, her treatment is “a work of improvisation. Like jazz.”

Or like this novel, which has a loosely structured feel, often to delightful effect. There are numerous brilliant scenes of the narrator navigating her new life. Her eccentric landlady cheerfully shares that some of Hitchcock’s Rear Window was filmed in the courtyard, which is “very funny,” she tells her, because “when she lived in the apartment the super had actually murdered a tenant”.

In the absence of medical help, she turns to peers on online forums. There, two men debate the merits of clubbing near a university for the deaf, where “you can say all sorts of things you’ve always wanted to say in the sheets”. The experience for the narrator is all-consuming – “it felt less like I was going through something and more like I had become the thing” – but the act of writing balances it out. “To see something in its entirety is to be entirely outside that thing.”

Perhaps this is why the focus shifts frequently away from deafness and towards sight: one sense compensating for another. The story becomes increasingly visual, including Zoom calls, a film-maker and the pursuit of a comet. But this also makes it meander further from its unique origins and closer to well-trodden territory.

When the narrator brings in other writers such as Robert Walser or Clarice Lispector, the effect is double-edged. Their words add texture (Lispector: “Before going to bed, as if putting out a candle, she blew out the little flame of the day”), but they also remind us that these writers would never deliver a line as woolly or awkward as “I felt in the present like I was living always alongside what a previous body had felt like”. Nonetheless, this is a debut that mostly delivers interesting things, and promises greater ones to come.

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  • The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan is published by Peninsula Press (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com