True Biz by Sara Nović
Published by Random House
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Cultural, Young Adult
So much of today’s zeitgeist revolves around the much needed recognition of vulnerable communities, but what about acknowledgement for the community that can’t hear? Sara Novic explores the realities of deaf life in her riveting novel True Biz. Set at the River Valley School for the Deaf boarding school, the novel encompasses the lives of the school’s headmistress and those of two teenagers and their families as all navigate not just the world around them, but their place in deaf society.
February is the child of deaf parents who imbued her with such a strong belief in embracing deafness that she dedicated her life to deaf education. She runs River Valley, but is now faced with budgetary issues that could close the school and upend her life. Charlie is a new student with a cochlear implant and Austin, a deaf student with a family heritage of deafness. Each of them represents a different segment in the world of deafness and each of their stories is riveting.
Charlie was born deaf, but her mother is so superficial she insisted Charlie get a cochlear implant so she would look normal and could go to regular school. Optimally used in infants, Charlie was three when she got hers and it hasn’t worked as planned. Most of what she hears is background noise so she relies on lip reading, but never being able to hear clearly or to interpret social cues has left her labeled a failing, problem student with developmental issues. She’s 16, but doesn’t know ASL (American Sign Language). RVSD is her last chance to find a place where she can thrive and fit in.
Austin is chosen to be Charlie’s mentor because he comes from a long line of familial deafness. His family is pedigreed within the community for their advocacy and ongoing efforts to advance the rights of the deaf. He’s the golden boy at school, secure in his place in life until something occurs that upsets the balance of their family and throws everything they’ve stood for into question.
True Biz provides a unique reading experience in that it takes place in contemporary America in the everyday world, but is populated by people living without a sense many of us take for granted. Unless deaf themselves, readers have no frame of reference to understand the world the deaf live in and very little understanding of what their everyday lives must be like. There’s a patience to Novic’s writing as each page reveals another detail mundane to the hearing, but potentially traumatizing, isolating, or embarrassing from the non-hearing perspective.
Nowhere is that clearer than one of the controversies lying at the book’s center. Cochlear implants, a technology built on the assumption that everyone must hear; a bit arrogant for an invasive surgery made before the recipient is old enough to make the decision for themselves. The axiom that deafness is a disability to be fixed is offensive to many in the deaf community who believe it should be seen as a cultural difference that deserves respect not medical intervention.
These elements and the thoughts they provoked were what I loved about True Biz. This would have been 5 stars for me, but it is a young adult novel and skews strongly in that direction with over-the-top emotions and lots of relationship drama. It was unnecessary noise in a book poignant in its portrayal of deaf life. Novic crafts each character to stand out for their resilience and determination to live life on their own terms. That True Biz portrays a real world being threatened by diminishing funding and disinterested politicians only makes the novel that much more heartbreaking.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Random House in exchange for an honest review.*