David Robinson Reviews

‘Sarah Smith says that she was inspired to write the story because no sooner does Jean Campbell flit into the historical record via court reports in the Glasgow Herald and the Caledonian Mercury than she disappears again.’

David Robinson finds you can’t keep a good story unwritten when he reviews Sarah Smith’s debut novel, Hear No Evil, by Sarah Smith.


Hear No Evil
By Sarah Smith
Published by Two Roads


Imagine you’re a policeman directing traffic. You want to tell the driver facing you to get a move on. You put your hand out, palm open and facing up, and move it back towards your shoulder. In sign language for the deaf, this gesture means that something happened in the past. Over your shoulder. Behind you. Gone.

Now imagine the past through the eyes of a deaf-mute girl in, say, the early 19th century. Sign language is in its infancy, and certainly not standardised. As a deaf girl, you probably haven’t been to school, so you can’t read and write, and because of that, the people you can’t talk to probably think you are stupid. Stupid and ignorant and, when accused of murdering your baby, probably guilty.

That is precisely the story Sarah Smith tells in her debut novel Hear No Evil, which is partly based on the real-life case of Jean Campbell, a Glaswegian who in 1817 was the first deaf woman tried in a Scottish court, accused of throwing her three-year-old child into the Clyde from the Saltmarket Bridge. Her trial made legal history for another reason: the court employed Edinburgh deaf school owner Robert Kinniburgh to help in her interrogation. In the novel, he does a lot more, repeatedly going to Glasgow to ascertain the facts of the case and see if he can uncover anything that could save Campbell from either the hangman’s noose or the insane asylum.

Already, perhaps, you can see both why Smith was drawn to this story and – because of her insistence that early sign language be a key part of it – the difficulties inherent in telling it. There are, she has written, hardly any deaf users of sign language in fiction, and the few that there are ‘range from the patronising to the absurd; childlike victims who are “rescued” by the hearing protagonist, or one-dimensional characters whose lack of hearing is used simply as a device to move the plot forward’.

Her own fictional Jean Campbell would, she resolved, be a lot more than that. At first, she wanted her to speak on the page using sign language – but, well, how was that even possible? And even if it was, as a hearing person, she was wary of cultural appropriation. No: the way into the story, she resolved, was through Kinniburgh. His empathy towards Campbell, his determination to understand her, his uncovering of the truth behind her plight would drive the story and, in the processs, allow it to be told through his own explanation of sign language. That’s how, for example,  I know that the sign for ‘in the past’ looks like (my description, not hers) a traffic cop beckoning cars onwards.

Smith’s novel runs on twin tracks of drama and explanation, often swapping between them. Sometimes the explanations go on for far longer than one would expect – Kinniburgh’s exposition on sign language to a partly deaf congregation lasts for ten full pages – but as the story is set at a time when signing is still new and strange, it is easy to understand why. As a reader, one starts to realise the sheer attentiveness involved in following sign language, and even then it can still seem puzzling. In Kinniburgh’s talk to the congregation, for example, he has to say ‘Rottenrow’ in sign language. You can, he says, either spell it out on your fingers (time-consuming) or try a sign. The sign for Rottenrow he comes up with is one showing whiskers like a cat or a mouse. Why? Because ‘the name is common in towns or villages throughout the country where there once was a row of tumbledown cottages infested with rats’. Would you have got that? Neither would I. In fact, as we are told Rottenrow could also be derived from the Gaelic phrase Rat-an-righ (road of the kings) perhaps some people in the congregation would have more readily understood a sign indicating a crown instead.

Although Campbell is accused of murdering her child (in the novel, a baby) by throwing it into the Clyde, Smith loads the dice in her favour so much that you never really think she is guilty of the crime. Her jailer says she’s no trouble, a local barmaid sings her praises (‘she cares for that wean as good as anybody’), members of her local church put in a good word for her and Robert himself notes her ‘intelligent expression and admirable composure’ on first meeting her at Edinburgh’s Tollbooth Prison. The fact that she has so many modern attitudes – being open about her desire for her labourer boyfriend, not minding that he’s from the other side of the sectarian divide, and the fact that she ‘shows no shame or remorse’ about living in sin seals the deal. She’s like us, so we like her.

Robert Kinniburgh isn’t like us at all. As he goes about trying to establish what really happened to Campbell in Glasgow, Smith seems to be painting him more and more as a person completely rooted in his times. The plot pauses and takes a breath while these details are provided. The jobs of the people in the coach with him back to Edinburgh (an engineer draining Nor’ Loch, a brewer setting up in Fountainbridge); once there, the timetable of the deaf school he runs and the anticipation among the pupils for the following month’s balloon flight over Arthur’s Seat by James Sadler. In Glasgow, we are shown where the city fathers are planning to widen the Clyde and inquire about the new asylum being built on Parliamentary Row. All these facts are threads tying him down to his times, and so do his attitudes: when told of a husband ‘making his wife suffer’ (in our day, we’d call it marital rape) he points out that this may be part of a husband’s duty. ‘The Lord exhorts us to go forth and multiply. He was only doing God’s will.’

Sarah Smith says that she was inspired to write the story because no sooner does Jean Campbell flit into the historical record via court reports in the Glasgow Herald and the Caledonian Mercury than she disappears again. Those brief mentions are, however, also enough to give Campbell a slender afterlife on the internet, and if you want to check out the real story underpinning this novel, University College London’s website is worth a look.* The blog there tells you what happened next, but as that would be too much of a spoiler, I won’t give the game away.


Hear No Evil by Sarah Smith is published by Two Roads, priced £16.99



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