Chattering: Stories
by Louise Stern

Granta Books
First Collection

"I wondered exactly where this sorrow she had just told me about was stored in her body, where she held it that she could call it up so fast and then dispose of it so fast. I wondered if it was because she could speak that she knew how to deposit the sorrow outside herself so efficiently. That was the part I envied. "

Reviewed by Sara Baume

What is the task of fiction if not to allow the reader to live vicariously, transporting us to states of being beyond the cosy confines of our own respective frames of reference?

What Stern has conjured throughout her debut collection is a world which most readers will find familiar on first encounter but disorientating beneath the surface. Nine out of twelve stories are slanted from the point of view of characters who are deaf. These are individuals bound by feelings of isolation and frustration, by the daily trials of communication, by the sensation of being totally alone in a crowded room. "It was the world of the deaf," says the third person narrator of Roadrunner, "a small, fierce encampment in the middle of hearing people who talked and talked all the time, their mouths opening and closing endlessly."

It came as a surprise to me that they are also united by their refusal to submit to the silence which surrounds them - in most cases Stern's characters are extraordinarily uninhibited. The young women described in Rio and The Velvet Rope freewheel recklessly through the hearing world. Instead of being crushed by the colossal restrictions of their disability, they have chosen to live fearlessly according to their passions - sleeping rough on Copacabana beach, getting drunk in Beverly Hills.

These are salutary stories about personal liberation. Yet because they are equally about the perceptions and behaviour of the hearing community toward the deaf - they are about discrimination as well. It's a discreet and inadvertent form of prejudice, stemming mainly out of awkwardness and misunderstanding. For those of us who take sound so thoughtlessly for granted, silence tends to have some strange and mysterious allure. It endows deaf people, and women in particular, with a certain preciousness and purity - something of the same untarnished patina with which they emerged from the womb. "You are beautiful and no words come out of you to ruin the fantasy," says a wannabe pimp to the two young girls in Rio, "and you can never hear the filth that is said around you. Completely untouched, untouchable."

While three stories stand out for the absence of deafness, the main protagonists in the title piece as well as The Wild Man and Pirates all exist on the margins of ordinary society, creating pockets of silence for themselves within a babbling, blaring world. Whether narrating characters hearing or deaf, Stern's finest talents as a story-writer are realised through the delicate portrayal of lives laced with insurmountable complexity.

As in most debut collections I have read, the stories in Chattering are all anchored to a fixed range of venues and repertoire of themes. These typically trace the trajectory of the author's own life - the deaf school Stern attended as a child, the destinations she has travelled to, the visual art scene of contemporary London which she inhabits now. In a handful of incidents, Stern draws characters of such certain eccentricity and describes events of such unforeseen oddness that I am assuming they can only have been borrowed from reality. In Boat, a man falls in love with a gerbil. In Abel, Granny and Him, a grandmother pulls her granddaughter's top down to flash her bra on public buses. In Chattering, a man bites a woman on the forearm to stop her from speaking. Specifically through the unsettling cases of Abel in Abel, Granny and Him and Ray in The Deaf School, Stern recounts lives which have been stunted due to the absence of appropriate resources available in childhood. Whether wholly true or only partially so, their stories are deeply affecting.

Stern has often discussed, in interview, issues concerning the deaf community. As the fourth generation of her family to be born without hearing, these are matters she is more than adequately qualified to appraise. While her stance is eloquently made and of crucial importance, she puts herself at risk of becoming a spokesperson first and an author second. In spite of the edification her fiction supplies, it is patronising to assess Stern's skills as a writer with emphasis on the fact that she is deaf. Minus her debut's insight and originality, this is a flawed collection.

Many of the stories begin with an engaging opening paragraph only to slide gracelessly to a disappointing end. They are on the brink of something great but ultimately betrayed by abrupt changes of direction and poor structure - the main character in Chattering ages by about fifteen years between paragraphs, the gerbil in Boat is introduced far too late in the day to merit expiring quite so poignantly. Too many of the pieces here seem incomplete, reading more like a re-telling of something which actually happened. Black and White Dog, for example, is brilliant as an anecdote but insufficient as a finished story.

Stern also works as a visual artist and is known to incorporate the scribbled notes of written conversations with friends and acquaintances into her artwork. This is only relevant in the same way her deafness is - in that it ensures her treatment of dialogue is unique and fascinating, her descriptions of places, people and things are vividly observed. Nevertheless, her stories have altogether too much of contemporary art about them for this reader. They are deeply felt, but difficult to spend time with. They are replete with careful meaning, but deficient in essential craft.


Read the title story from this collection on Untitled Books

Sara Baume is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from Circa art magazine to The Stinging Fly literary magazine.
Sara's other Short Reviews: J D Salinger "Nine Stories"
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Born in 1978 and raised in Fremont, California, Louise Stern now lives in London where she practices as a visual artist and publishes a contemporary art magazine for children entitled Maurice. She is the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf, and this is her first book.