True Biz is a novel about River Valley School for the Deaf, where a new student learns to find her place and the headmistresses struggles to keep the school and her marriage going. Charlie has never been around other deaf people before, but when she transfers to the school, she learns the language that was kept from her, makes new friends, and develops her understanding of Deaf culture. Her new friend Austin deals with the birth of his baby sister, who is hearing, and the school’s headmistress February tries to manage threats about the school’s future whilst keeping her worries from her wife.
I loved Nović’s Girl at War so I wanted to read this one, and I’m very glad I did. Told from the perspectives of a range of characters, mostly the three protagonists with occasional moments from somebody else, and interspersed with information on American Sign Language and Deaf history as Charlie learns it, the book immerses you in the lives of the characters, and as a hearing reader I found I learnt a lot whilst following the characters’ journeys. There’s more of a focus on character, with a coming of age element particularly with Charlie, rather than narrative, with the book more of an episode of the characters’ lives rather than a distinct start and finish.
Charlie’s story was particularly engaging, exploring the development of her anger and sense of her own self as she deals with an implant that doesn’t work as it should and realises what she missed out on by having sign language and Deaf culture kept from her. Her political education comes both from history lessons and from other people, and the book really shows the importance of community and sharing history to fight for your rights. The other main story in the book, February dealing with her aging mother, failing to communicate with her wife, and worrying about the school and students, was also good, though didn’t really come to a particular ending. The other characters had less space in the book, but I liked that there was a range of characters and hints of their stories too.
Emphasising the important of other people and shared culture, True Biz is a character-focused coming of age story that has a powerful message about disability rights and Deaf community.