Book Review: ‘The house with all the lights on’

by | Oct 19, 2023 | Ability News, Disability Sector

‘If I were to tell you our story in sign language - the story of my grandparents and me - I’d begin with a single finger touching my chest.’ 

Please share our articles

By Jessica Kirkness | Allen&Unwin | $34.99 | 232 pages

Reviewed by Nic Stuart

It feels almost morally wrong, as a journalist, to begin a review by quoting from a book’s first line. You know this one will have been more heavily worked than any other – is it really fair to give it such prominence? 

This is the time to break that rule.

That’s because Jessica Kirkness writes with both such raw immediacy and careful crafting that the sheer beauty of the words almost threatens to overwhelm the edgy passion in her writing. 

It doesn’t, of course, because she’s guiding her reader’s every step as we enter into her world and the world of her deaf grandparents. This is another society – one I was completely unaware of – that exists within and around us all. Kirkness takes us gently into this world that we are not aware of, and that is the wonderful gift offered by this book. 

She describes herself as a GODA – grandaughter of deaf adults – and slowly shows us her world and that of her grandparents. 

The book is set as a tragedy, beginning with the news that her grandfather is dying. ‘Ah well,’ I thought, ‘not much upside here!’ This is the first surprise that keeps me reading. Her deaf grandfather doesn’t rail against the outrage that first left him deaf and is now poised to take him away; or against the hospital system that leaves him to learn the news as it’s translated into signs by his granddaughter. Instead he smiles and shrugs. 

‘I’ve had a good, long life,’ he says. 

And this is the attitude of the book. It’s a journey towards the light of knowledge and understanding, illuminated by the sudden squeeze of a hand or context. A sentence like ‘When Grandpa died, Uncle Ray inherited his watch and the family Bible” adds meaning and depth to our understanding of the family dynamic in a way no other description possibly can. 

What’s interesting about this, though, is that it comes after a short but deep consideration of David Kessler’s psychological examination of the stages of grief. The difference is that instead of a dry, academic review (the author also happens to be a doctor of philosophy), Kirkness gives us knowledge we can use and immediately apply. 

This is beginning to sound too much like a rave – is there anything wrong with the book, anything that could be improved? 

Well, the ending of course. One wants (almost) Kirkness to use her authorial goddess-ness and wave a magic wand to allow her grandfather to survive. She won’t, of course, because she is wedded to truth, yet in so many ways this explains the purpose of her book. She is urging us to grasp our lives and enjoy them as they are. 

Kirkness is helping us to understand the human condition: not to fight it; but to engage with our lives as people with disability (or supporters of people with disability). That’s why there are two pages of references. It’s not an academic list of works consulted – it’s a guide for further engagement. 

Other issues? Well yes, I want more. More of her, more of her emotions, more of her life.

But then it wouldn’t be a story about her deaf grandparents, would it?