Review: Ismael and his Sisters

Vivid and violent picture of vulnerability


By Louise Stern
Granta, £12.99

Imagine a community where speech is soundless and hands do the talking. Such a place was Martha's Vineyard, now a stylish summer retreat but once home to so many deaf families that even the hearing conversed in signs.

Such a place, too, is the close-knit Mexican village where the siblings of Louise Stern's startling first novel, Ismael and his Sisters, live to a solid, steady rhythm - until a fateful encounter at the local fiesta destroys the trust they place in the world and one another.

Dazzled by the festive "ribbons of crepe paper and coloured lights, and corridors of bicycle carts selling fried potatoes to eat with hot sauce, pieces of papaya and pineapple", Ismael falls for a siren outsider in red skirt and rhinestone-buckled shoes. Her emerald eyes prove his undoing: the woman's macho minder attacks Ismael, who strikes back in self-defence, killing the stranger. Ismael, in panic, flees to the big city - as harsh and alien a milieu in which to survive as it is to communicate.

Here, the swift, expressive movements of his signing are met with shrugs and incomprehension. Back home, sisters Rosie and Christina also spiral out of control, as if floundering in a "bottomless hostile ocean".

The act of murder, says a visiting priest, is what triggered the 'curse of deafness'

In Stern's sad, sultry tale of vulnerability, it's as if extreme emotion, long dormant, has been roused from the family DNA: all the village knows that their grandmother rose up and shot her husband for infidelity, drunkenness and pinching her pesos, hard–earned from sales of cilantro. This murderous act, according to a visiting priest, is what triggered the "curse of deafness". And so the cycle repeats.

Stern's writing is so visually dramatic that it could be an opera without song, arias Stern herself has never heard. The 35-year-old artist, like her characters, was born deaf into a family that has clearly thrived without hearing for several generations. Stern has, she says, a special interest in how sign-language changes your relationship to the world.

As a halting signer myself (my daughter became deaf in her twenties), I know how balletic this language of the hands can look when finely executed. And how much may be explored without a word spoken. But Stern's story leaves me wondering if the spoken word and the very syntax of the sentences we say (and share) aloud gives containment to visceral thoughts and disturbing feelings that could otherwise overwhelm and imperil.

Without the ability to name and frame his wild terror, anxiety and abandonment, Ismael is prey to "unfiltered emotions… tugging and pitching, pushing him below forcefully and demandingly as the tides." In Stern's book, the world seems a little more dangerous without hearing, perhaps a little more deeply felt.

If the hearing world noticed this and reached out, just a little, Ismael and his sisters might not feel so lost.

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