A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh

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A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: The story provides an insight into deaf community history that I hadn't known about before reading, through the story of a sweet, engaging girl.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: February 2024
Publisher: Tinder Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781035401611

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After a bout of scarlet fever as a child, Ellen Lark loses her hearing. Suddenly plunged into a world of silence, everything about her life changes. Living in a time when the use of sign language was seen as something only savages do, Ellen is sent to a school where she is taught to lip read, but physically restrained from signing. From here, she ends up in another school studying under Alexander Graham Bell who has been teaching the deaf and using a system called Visible Speech. At the same time, Bell is working on other inventions and ideas, and Ellen finds herself unwittingly caught up in a complicated tangle of espionage.

I have always been interested in sign language. I did baby sign language classes with my children when they were small, and it became a fun way for us to talk whilst they were still very small and unable to verbalise their thoughts. There are some signs we've continued to use as a family - it's remarkably useful to be able to talk to each other across a noisy room or playing field! So I was very keen to read this story. I found the historical aspects really interesting. I hadn't realised sign language had been so problematic, or that it had been discouraged in deaf communities by hearing people. It seems outrageous now that children would ever have been forcibly restrained from using signs, but I suppose it hasn't actually been that long that sign language has been a recognised language system. Hopefully the push for more hearing people to learn sign language now will continue.

I also hadn't realised Bell's involvement in the deaf community during his life. Visible speech is a way of transcribing sounds that enables anyone to be able to pronounce the sounds of any words, in any language. He used this to teach his deaf pupils to be able to make speeches, though ultimately it was a performance, and the deaf remained isolated and alone in their silence. In the book, Bell believes, strongly, that the deaf should use lip reading and his techniques of visible speech in order to integrate into hearing society, and that they should not use sign language. He seems unable to see that the elaborate system he uses is just that, a system that doesn't actually help with any real communication.

Through the story we watch Ellen, enraptured by Bell and his exciting ideas, and his high energy and we see how she is drawn into his life and caught up in his inventions. She sacrifices her own time and energy in order to try to help him move forwards with his designs. But after she meets Frank, a deaf printer in Boston, we watch as she starts to make contact with the deaf community there. She finds ease in using signs again, after having used some made up with her sister when she was younger, and secretly using more in the schools she attended. We also see her revelations as she starts to understand how Bell is really behaving, what visible speech actually is, and how she feels about her place within the deaf community.

The story moves from different timelines which I sometimes found confusing, and it has quite a slow pace which some readers might find frustrating. I didn't fully understand the issues around the patent of the telephone, and the dispute with Mr Gray. (I looked up more about it after finishing the book). But then that confusion served to reinforce how difficult it is for Ellen who also struggles to understand and piece together clues from lip-reading, stumbling over words that look very similar and finding herself unsure of who is saying what, and who she can trust.

I liked Ellen a lot, and I really wanted her to escape her odious fiance! I found myself thinking a lot about language, conversation and connection, all of which are very important things to think about. I don't think I have read a story with a lead deaf character before, so that representation is really important. I had hoped for more of a dramatic ending though. I don't want to give away any spoilers of what happens, but I'm afraid it left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted a bit more about what Ellen was thinking, and planning, and what she would go on to do. But the book certainly provides an interesting insight into deaf community history, and it is told in a gentle, interesting way.

You might also enjoy Whisper by Chrissie Keighery or Give Me A Sign by Shanta Everington.

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