David Lodge's latest novel explores the world of Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics who is going deaf. It features the three main characters in his life - a student, his wife and his father - and the changing relationship he has with each of them.
It's an intriguing book and especially compelling in the treatment of deafness. Why, Bates asks, is this disability treated as something comic, whereas blindness is always tragic? He recounts the frustrations and embarrassment caused by his inability to hear and his journey as he comes to terms with his deafness, and, in an ongoing wordplay, with death.
However, it's an uneven novel and the flow is not helped by the move from Bates' first person reflections to third person narrative. The mix of intimate story-telling, as Bates deepens his relationship with his wife and father, does not sit easily with the thriller-like tale where we see Bates become entangled in the ever stranger behaviour of his American student, Alex.
David Lodge himself is becoming deaf, and the depiction of Bates' deafness has a touching authenticity. Likewise, the character of the father is modelled on Lodge's own father, and also rings true, as does Bates' wife. But Alex (a blonde American postgraduate, researching suicide notes) is entirely fictional, and it's hard to believe her story. The final denouement seems contrived and is deeply unsatisfying.
It's a shame that Lodge brought in Alex to add suspense. She contributes little and detracts from the powerful figures of Bates' wife and father. The latter two teach the meaning of deepening intimacy. Alex shows us that people do strange things. I know which I find more insightful.