The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.
This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”
McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”
Some of the descriptions are so exquisite I wanted to copy them out longhand to pore over, as in Omens: “Two crows chatter, voices like dead leaves in the wings of summer.”
Cochlear Implant Assessment Stage 1: Quality of Life Questionnaire is a startlingly insightful hermit crab flash drawn, I suspect, directly from the author’s own experiences. The change of pace, slicing dreamy segments between matter-of-fact if unexpected queries, serves to highlight further both the challenges of impaired hearing and the protagonist’s particular character.
“1. I feel isolated by not hearing sounds around me. 
Sometimes my edges blur, and people step right through me as though I’m sea foam.”
Splicing the silence of the grief at the heart of her family with the physical hush of her deafness is a powerful choice, not least when she makes the decision in 2019 to undergo a medical procedure – the fitting of a cochlear implant – to regain her hearing. The clinical and emotional significance of both these situations wash around the protagonist like the ocean waves she refers to often in the text, until your eyes sting with salt water.
I found myself hungrily lapping up McGrane’s insights into the experiences of adjusting to the implant, not least in the flash segment Exaltation, in which Imogen hears birdsong again for the first time, and in later chapters, of rediscovering the voices of the sea, and of listening to a robin send “its noise to fill the hungry hollows of your head.”
The imagery of wings, water and plants flutter throughout, winding in with Imogen’s intermittent memories of her brother, including her recovered memory of him nicknaming her “Imagine”. It’s a tender portrayal of the importance of our early relationships and how older influences can help us comprehend “this unquiet world” through their own sense of wonder. Vividly evocative.
This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.
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