A Sign of her Own by Sarah Marsh

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction
A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh

By Kitty Murphy

A masterful, delicate debut, A Sign Of Her Own is at heart a historical drama, a detailed and careful tale of a young woman who, on the very brink of marriage and the consistency she has always craved, is only to be swept back into an older man’s manipulation and greed, caught somewhere between justice and truth. It speaks of voices that haven’t been heard or appreciated, as the tale twists around the invention of the telephone.

The writing has elegance and the story is interesting, but the real hook here is that the main character Ellen and the author Sarah Marsh, are both deaf, and this aspect is brilliantly written. As someone hard of hearing, I found myself noticing the space where sound might have been, the silences within the prose, and the touches of lived experience – how conversation is seen and not heard, how exhausting visual noise can be – sweeten the tale throughout and bring a solidity to the lives of the characters.

A Sign of Her Own speaks of Otherness, of humanity’s need to stand away from those who are different, to draw the lines between Us and Them, and for the constant struggle to make all voices heard – and seen. I found the conversations for and against the use of sign language to be really interesting, and the way the author shows the shadow of prejudice. Ellen’s feelings of being on the outside looking in, only understanding one word in six or having to guess the context, to be constantly watching someone’s body language and their gestures for additional clues, really added to the colour, and leave the reader knowing the loneliness she experiences.

The plot moves quickly between Ellen’s development as a young deaf woman in the world, with the added complications of sometimes tragic and difficult family circumstances, to the twists and turns of Alexander Graham Bell’s narrative, his teaching within the deaf community and his treatment of those he uses to further his career. The historical aspects are well researched here and Bell is as unlikable as he is ambitious; I could see his steely eyes peering through the page, picking every little detail, just as Ellen did the same – but it’s the heart of the book, Ellen, who shines.

Above all, Ellen is a smart woman:

You have eyes like a hawk, Mr Bell once told me. You miss nothing.

Ellen has great Main Character Energy. She believes in justice and is quick to push forward if needed, and I found that strength extremely likable – she’s passionate and interesting and with the story told in close first person, she needed to be true to herself. In turn, the historical aspects of the book are shown against her warmth, in their grubby, natural state. Although the details of the legal issues and the technical stuff didn’t always quite stick in my head, the literary style behind them is well crafted. This isn’t a book to race through in a weekend, it’s one to savour.

A Sign of Her Own by Sarah MarshIn a time when many modern literary works are thick with dialogue, it was a real pleasure to sit in the quiet, with Ellen.

(c) Kitty Murphy

Order your copy online here.

And see here for Sarah Marsh on the inspiration behind A Sign of her Own.

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