A really interesting novel from NetGalley here about the D/deaf community in the US – not an area I knew much about, either there or over here (I would LOVE some recommendations on books, fiction or non-fiction, on the D/deaf community in the UK as I’ve had trouble locating anything but expensive academic works but I know they must be out there). I did check with a friend who has experience with the D/deaf community in the UK and confirmed that many of the issues are similar to those in the US, the only difference being that the NHS provides cochlear implants and the relevant training and support, where basic US health insurance gives implants without support, from the book. We’re onto books I’ve finished in May now, although this was an extra one I picked up in March and published in April.

Sara Novic – “True Biz”

(25 March 2022 – NetGalley)

We meet February, the head teacher of a school for the deaf in a relatively run-down American city, the hearing child of deaf parents and bilingual in English and sign language, and Charlie, a teenager who’s transferred to the school after sinking at a mainstream school, de-languaged by the installation of a cochlear implant that’s never worked properly, without the accompanying high-intensity therapy that’s needed to navigate the world with one, while not having been allowed to learn sign language. Now she and her dad are learning ASL at night school community classes run at the school, while her mother still refuses to learn. Charlie and the other teenagers have the usual preoccupations with classes, lessons, friendships and relationships, all mediated through the various bits of tech that a person with a hearing disability need – from video phones to flashing alarm clocks to new apps.

The school is under threat and February’s relationship with her wife Mel deteriorates as she holds this knowledge to herself. Meanwhile, her mother, who is living with them at the start of the book, is becoming more overwhelmed with dementia: will a care home living with an old deaf friend of hers help? I loved that Feb just happens to be gay, just as Charlie’s roommate Kayla just happens to be Black – although their characteristics do throw up plot points through the book. I particularly appreciated learning about Black ASL and its origins and differences from ASL.

This was not the only learning point. The book is full of sign language lessons and exercises from presumably a textbook they are learning from themselves – although at one point, associated with a part of the story where Charlie is engaging in various risky drug and sex behaviours with her anarchopunk sometime high school boyfriend, we get an awful lot of interesting signs for various sexual activities (don’t look at these too closely while being a visual learner, as they will become engrained in your mind forever!). I liked the way Charlie’s experience of spoken and signed language is conveyed to us with dashes where she can’t understand a word, and signed communication is written in italics, spoken in plain type. The history of ASL is covered in boxes (I think this book would work better as a physical book than an e-book, actually, in layout terms) and current issues, like the apparent wish to eradicate D/deafness and its culture by implanting all babies or genetically engineering it out of them, and issues there around class and race, are explored through the characters’ lives and experiences.

I wanted this book to end on a more positive note, and was sure it would when a certain plot point happened. However, all is not light and positivity in the D/deaf community as regards culture and education, so this is more realistic. There were lovely points, for example when Charlie finally gets an interpreter in her implant appointments when she can understand enough ASL, and her dodgy high school boyfriend makes an effort to sign and be lip-read and is careful around consent. The different experiences of different kinds of people are explored with care and understanding. The author’s note thanks the Deaf community, of which she is part, and lists real schools that have already closed.

Thank you to Little, Brown for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “True Biz” was published on 21 April 2022.

Here’s a great review by Grab The Lapels, who has been immersed in ASL and Deaf culture for the past year and gives a view on the book from that valuable perspective.