Books

Fiona Murphy
The Shape of Sound

“The shape of sound” is not just a metaphor. Sound is literally shapely. It’s physical, forceful; it can be overwhelming. Fiona Murphy’s debut memoir reminds us that while the “prevailing assumption is that deaf people hear nothing ... I feel sound rolling over my skin. I see it shimmer off other faces. I taste it in my mouth. Sometimes, it is all too much.”

The Shape of Sound begins conventionally in childhood, as the author struggles to hear instructions in swimming lessons. During an audiologist’s appointment she receives confirmation she is “profoundly deaf” in her left ear.

Through her adolescence and early adulthood, determined to appear “normal” and capable, Murphy develops a range of strategies to hide her deafness, but it profoundly shapes her experience. When she trials a hearing aid as an adult, the sudden onrush of unfiltered sound is harrowing and claustrophobic. She returns it, wanting “to scour the noise from my skin”.

Murphy’s writing is clear, spacious and unaffected, but also contains passages of heartbreaking lyricism. She ushers the reader gently into the complexities of listening fatigue and social isolation, how the architecture of buildings and of workplaces exclude people by design, how sign language requires the speaker to be comfortable in their own skin.

The book has a disarming, compelling structure. As it progresses, it’s as if the genre of memoir realises its own limitations, incrementally making space for illuminating cultural critique. Murphy integrates these two modes with nuance and attunement.

Being considered “high achieving” and labelled as “half-deaf”, she realises, effectively obstructs the critical insight that “living in a body with two opposing sides meant never feeling whole and well”.

Identity is revealed to be a difficult and fitful odyssey, not some one-off transformation. When Murphy discovers performance artist Aaron Williamson’s idea that “hearing loss” might instead be “deaf gain”, she is challenged and exhilarated. And so are we.

There is immense pressure on the life stories of deaf and disabled people to conform to expectations, to be either tragic or inspiring – or preferably both. Even within these communities, one can feel an expectation to be wholeheartedly proud, to have transcended internalised ableism.

The Shape of Sound charts a path that is far more true and useful. It’s an invigorating and thought-provoking achievement, as testimony and as literature.

Andy Jackson

Text Publishing, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Fiona Murphy, The Shape of Sound".

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Reviewer: Andy Jackson