The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan: book review

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan

Overview: The unnamed protagonist suffers sudden hearing loss right as she's preparing to leave for her friend's wedding in Venice. She'd built a life as a freelance composer creating scores for film and TV and had just moved apartments when suddenly the auditory world around her becomes augmented. This short novel follows the protagonist through a year of her life in the aftermath. From seeing doctors on both coasts to a trip to Italy with her mother to navigating feelings for an ex, she has to redefine the contours of her new life. Overall: 4 

Characters: 4 The protagonist of the novel is likable enough. We don't get to know her on a particularly substantial or deep level, but I enjoyed probing through her random thoughts and various entanglements as she confronted a major life change. Because the book is only 163 pages, there's a sense that the novel really only skims the surface on a number of fronts, but I didn't mind that. You're clearly not getting a full picture of a person's life, but this book is so much about redefining a relationship with life when one of your senses changes in a way you never expected that the narrow scope we experience this character through is more than justified. 

I feel like it's worth noting that Callahan herself experienced sudden hearing loss due to an autoimmune disorder, and that personal knowledge really comes through in the character and the depth of feeling and experiences within the novel. 

Plot: 4 There isn't a clear narrative arc here, but again, it works because it's all so grounded in the context of facing a medical challenge that requires constant recalibration. There is growth and an evolution of her emotions that is satisfying. The thread about her close relationship with her ex the "filmmaker" even as he has a new girlfriend (who also figures into the novel in an important way) adds a compelling B plot that winds through the narrative. The only recurring sections that dragged for me were the scenes where she goes through hypnosis as a therapy. Overall, though, the book is so short that it's easy to move through without much friction. 

Writing: 4 I liked Callahan's writing. This book doesn't massively stand out in my mind in any particular way, but it was enjoyable. I wanted to pick up the book, and the fact that I made so much progress every time I read kept me going. This would be a great one if you were sprinting to meet a reading goal. 

The only note I have about the writing itself, as a heads up to readers with varying feelings on this, is that there isn't any formal dialogue. More than not having quotation marks, most conversations are presented in summary. Some individual lines of dialogue might be passively relayed every now and then, but it's largely told almost like a monologue or a diary. Usually, this makes a book feel really dense and harder to get through, but I didn't have that experience here. I didn't miss the dialogue. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

The Age of Magical Overthinking nonfiction review

Worry review

After You'd Gone review

The Late Americans review


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