A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh review – a vivid journey into a world without hearing

<span>Compelling insights … Sarah Marsh.</span><span>Photograph: Rii Schroer</span>
Compelling insights … Sarah Marsh.Photograph: Rii Schroer

In the spring of 1876, just before the centennial of the United States, the Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell patented an apparatus for “transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … causing electrical undulations”. A century and a half later, there is an argument to be made that Bell’s device is one of the most transformative inventions in human history.

Yet the 29-year-old Bell we meet in Sarah Marsh’s engaging first novel is a man whose passion for invention was very much secondary to his other great project: teaching deaf people to speak. Graham’s mother and his wife, Mabel, were both deaf, and Bell was committed to integrating deaf people into hearing society through “oralism”, which meant not only teaching them to make speech by learning how to move their mouths by rote, but also forbidding them to use any kind of sign language. Katie Booth’s 2021 biography of Bell, The Invention of Miracles, was a passionate assault on Bell’s cause.

Marsh, who is herself deaf, brings the price of this quest to vivid life in A Sign of Her Own. Its narrator is Ellen Lark, who lost her hearing at the age of five after a bout of scarlet fever (the same illness that deafened Bell’s wife, Mabel). Growing up in the New England of the mid-19th century, it’s made very clear to her – most notably by her strong-willed grandmother, Adeline – that she is a cause to be taken on, an error to be corrected. “Adeline folded recipes into letters that said ‘Poor Ellen’, and called me a deaf-and-dumb child, and described what must be done about me.”

One of the greatest strengths of this novel is the way in which it conjures Ellen’s experience of the world

Bell, like so many of his era, thought that deafness was only a deficit. The idea of a deaf culture, expressed fluently through sign languages – as adaptable and creative as any other language – was alien to him. Ellen is eventually sent to Miss Roscoe’s Oral School in Boston, where she begins to learn “Visible Speech”, the complex phonetic alphabet originally devised by Bell’s father to enable deaf people to create comprehensible sounds. The novel switches back and forth in time between Ellen’s early life and her strict oral schooling – children’s hands are tied to chairs to prevent them signing – and decades later, when as a result of her long connection to Bell she finds herself embroiled in a patent dispute: Elisha Gray, whose name is now mostly forgotten, claims to have invented the telephone before Bell.

This eloquent novel functions on many levels. There’s some espionage around the patent; there’s a moving and difficult love story; and Bell himself is, while not precisely sinister, painted as nearly fanatic in his commitment to oralism, a faith that would damage so many. “Deaf people may like signs because they are easy for them, but that ease is dangerous,” he tells Ellen. “Signing isolates them from society. It isolates them from their family. Therefore, signs are only useful in a very limited way. Deaf children especially should be kept apart to avoid temptation.” The temptation of true, fluent language: a shocking thought.

But one of the greatest strengths of this novel is the way in which it conjures Ellen’s experience of the world, which is both absolutely full but also constrained by her deafness. The reader finds herself mouthing words, discovering the “homophenes” – words that look alike on the mouth when spoken – which Ellen studies on Bell’s behalf. Some of the plot hinges on the fact that to a deaf observer, the words “Mr Gray” – as in Elisha – “mercury” and “mystery” can all look the same. These are hidden treasures for the hearing reader to discover, for this is a book that offers insight as well as delight. Novels can open up worlds in the way no other form can: this accomplished debut is proof of it.

• A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh is published by Tinder (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.