Title: True Biz
Author: Sara Nović
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
A transporting novel that follows a year of seismic romantic, political, and familial shifts for a teacher and her students at a boarding school for the deaf, from the acclaimed author of Girl at War.
True biz (adj/exclamation; American Sign Language): really, seriously, definitely, real-talk
True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.
This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy. Absorbing and assured, idiosyncratic and relatable, this is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection.
This book was an impulse read for me… and I’m so glad I gave in to my whims! True Biz was the Hello Sunshine book club pick for April, and while I don’t always follow celebrity book clubs, I find the Reese picks often include terrific stories I might not have come across otherwise. Such is the case with True Biz.
In this excellent novel, we follow the lives of the River Valley School for the Deaf’s headmistress, a hearing woman named February whose parents were deaf, as well as several of the school’s students. As the book opens, we learn that three students have disappeared from the school, leaving their cell phones behind. This is potentially a catastrophe, and a police search is launched. From this opening, we go back six months to learn how these events unfold.
The school, located in the Ohio rust belt, has served generations of deaf students, providing a safe haven, a home, a community, and a chance for education and language not available in mainstream programs. Some of the students come from families with long histories of deafness; for others, they’re the outliers in their families, and receive varying levels of support — or sometimes, almost none at all — before coming to RVSD.
While True Biz tells a compelling story about the lives of the characters and their personal stakes and struggles, it also provides a window into the Deaf community. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been ignorant about many of the issues described in the book, and the most shocking and eye-opening for me was the discussion about language deprivation and cochlear implants.
As depicted by the characters in this book, while cochlear implants (technical devices that include a piece implanted in a baby or child’s head, that allows sound signals to bypass the ears and be received and decoded by the brain) are often seen as miraculous solutions to a problem, they represent something potentially cataclysmic to the Deaf community. As part of “fixing” deafness, the recommended approach for implanted children is to make them completely reliant on the implants so they’re forced to learn to interpret sounds and speak out loud. Often, this means denying them access to American Sign Language.
But CIs are often imperfect, and for some children, don’t work well enough for them to get by or truly learn to master verbal English. Without ASL, the children are essentially language deprived — they grow up without mastery of any language and suffer throughout their education and beyond because of this.
The other large issue with CIs seems to be the impact on the Deaf community itself. By “fixing” deafness, the devices (and those who advocate for them) seem to be pushing an agenda that erases the Deaf world, which is a culture unto itself, with a rich history and linguistic traditions.
I loved that the book includes illustrations of ASL words, as well as explanations of grammar and syntax, historical notes, and all sorts of other information about the Deaf community that I had little to no awareness of. As I said earlier, I’m somewhat embarrassed that so much of the cultural elements portrayed in this book are new to me, and that’s something I want to remedy.
A note on presentation and style: Initially, I was put off by the lack of quotation marks when characters speak — in general, a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fiction. Here, though, the stylistic choices appear to be deliberate. Depending on the placement and format of the different lines being spoken, we can tell by looking at the way the words are written whether the characters are speaking ASL or English, when a signing character finger-spells a word, and when a character misses a word that’s being spoken out loud or signed. It’s very effective and very clever.
I also want to point out that while I’ve mostly written about the issues depicted and brought to life in the book, the characters and plot are excellent and make for engrossing, compelling reading. In fact, my only complaint is that the ending felt too abrupt, as if the author simply decided to stop rather than go a little bit further in the timeline and wrap it up. I was left with questions about what comes next and feeling unsatisfied… but that’s okay.
The reading journey was enjoyable every step of the way, and I came to really care about the characters of True Biz. A lovely book — I highly recommend it.