Title: The Shape of Sound
Author: Fiona Murphy
Genre: Biography & Memoir
Publisher: Text Publishing
Published: March 2021
As I read Fiona Murphy’s debut novel, The Shape of Sound, I could feel the weight of the anxiety and pressure Murphy carried with her as she accepts her deafness. In her memoir novel, Murphy details her upbringing, struggles with education, continuous loss of sound (or perhaps, as Murphy noted towards the end, gaining of silence), difficulties with relationships, career moves, and stigma surrounding the deaf community while battling to keep her condition a secret. This novel is shaped around Murphy’s condition, but it does not mean the novel is without its moments of lightness.
Secrets drag you down; this is a profound point in The Shape of Sound. Secret keeping is a way to bar others from accessing your world and assists in maintaining an illusion of yourself you cannot stand others shattering. As Murphy attempts to follow conversations by reading lips, staring, facing people straight on, and mimicking other peoples’ reactions, I could not help but feel exhausted; Murphy’s unfailing determination to blend in made me feel sick with worry over the risk that her secret could be exposed. I almost felt complicit in my desperation for Murphy to keep her condition secret, and this is an important point Murphy confronts in regard to stigma and conformation.
Nestled within Murphy’s memoir are quotes, summaries, and extracts on statistics, articles, novels, and other academic and non-academic information on deafness. A consistent theme in these sources (which are kindly listed at the end of the novel based on book section and chapter), are how people with a hearing disability have a higher chance of facing economic and social difficulties. Murphy notes that people with hearing difficulties are perceived as burdensome and rarely receive the chance to enter a profession where they can progress. Murphy’s own fears on how to maintain a job and difficulties in the workforce are detailed within the novel so vividly I had to put the book down due to frustration several times. While some colleges are/were unaware of Murphy’s condition, Murphy notes that leniency and help in the workplace—despite laws on disability in the workplace—are not extended or understood by others. What shocked me the most was that Murphy works in healthcare! A profession that should have staff properly trained in how to handle and address medical issues in the workplace.
While I am examining the heavier parts of the novel, The Shape of Sound is not without its humour and lightness; however, when I turned the last page, it was not the humour that sat with me, or the heaviness of the novel, but the hopeful ending. Murphy’s experience of continuous sound loss is not over because the book has ended and she recognises this, but she also recognises her advantages as an educated white woman in Australia. While she still has choices to make that could delay—if not halt—her progression to becoming completely deaf, Murphy recognises that she still has her hands to communicate with people. Murphy’s attention to detail about her experience learning Auslan (Australian Sign Language)—in particular the way her hands move, the slight differences between words, the different lexicon between spoken and signed English, how the body needs to move with signing—was beautifully examined as she educated herself.
Though this story does, in some ways, follow the ‘overcoming your disability’ narrative that prevails in so much of disability literature, it just reinforces how deeply inaccessible the world is to people with disabilities. Murphy’s need to keep her deafness secret and to work around others to avoid discrimination highlights how our society is still geared towards making people with disabilities change their behaviours rather than building systems that include them.
The Shape of Sound is a stunning, thought-provoking, and at times rage-inducing debut by Fiona Murphy. Murphy’s beautiful, captivating prose is weaved throughout her story. A novel that will surely stir up several emotions and leave you feeling slightly lost in a world full of sound.