book review: True Biz by Sara Nović

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović
Random House, April 5, 2022

I’ve been having a lackluster reading month and was craving something engrossing, and True Biz ended up fitting the bill perfectly. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf, True Biz is effectively a love letter to deaf culture, couched in a coming of age narrative mostly focusing on the budding relationship between two teenage students, Austin and Charlie. Austin comes from generations-old deaf family, whereas Charlie is the first deaf member of her own family; she was never taught sign language and was forced to grow up having very little communicative ability as her cochlear implant is barely functional. The novel also follows February, the school’s headmistress, dealing with her failing relationship, her mom’s poor health, and the potential imminent closure of the school. The novel’s prologue also introduces the fact that three of the students at the school have just gone missing; we then go back in time six months to see the factors that led up to this event.

So, naturally, there’s a lot going on in this book, and where it succeeds is in the thorough immersion it provides in deaf culture (Nović herself is a deaf author). This book informs and engages in equal measure; it’s a crash course in deafness for those of us who are lacking in knowledge of deaf culture and history, but none of it feels rushed or underexamined or patronizing. (It’s not for me to decide, but I can imagine that this book will be as much of a joy for deaf readers as it is for hearing readers.) That said, Nović’s dedication to giving the reader the most thorough portrait of deaf culture possible was often to the novel’s disadvantage; it resulted in a few unfortunate side effects, one of which was a Black character only receiving one single point of view chapter, which existed solely for the benefit of giving the reader a quick lesson on BASL (Black American Sign Language). The differences between ASL and BASL and the stigmas attached to the latter are fascinating, but it felt really shoehorned in, in an attempt to leave no stone unturned—I ultimately just wished that that character had more of a role in the narrative. 

This novel isn’t plot heavy, and for the most part, that works well. The quieter approach to depicting daily life at the school suits Nović’s aims with this novel perfectly. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the decision was made to use the framing device which positions this book as some kind of mystery. I’ll just say right now that the reality behind the disappearance of the three students is very anticlimactic, and I’m guessing the end of this book wouldn’t have felt like such a whimper if we weren’t told from the beginning that the whole novel was building to this event.

But critiques aside, I actually did really enjoy spending time with this book and I do think it’s going to be a big hit when it publishes. Its characters are mostly complex, its style is compulsively readable, and its depiction of deaf culture is multifaceted and warm and unlike any other book I’ve read on the subject. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

16 thoughts on “book review: True Biz by Sara Nović

  1. oooo this is one of my most aniticpated books of the year – im really glad you enjoyed it!! i also saw on the author’s instagram that there are illustrations in the book of words in sign language which looked so cool 👀

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES I was so glad the illustrations made it into the e-ARC I was reading but I can’t wait to flip through a physical copy in a bookstore, this book was just beautifully constructed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds great! I enjoyed Novice’s debut a lot so am really looking forward to this one. Although I agree that info dumping is not great practice in fiction, I’m very keen to learn more about sign language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, I was so engaged by the material that I didn’t mind the info dumping half as much as I normally would (I just found the BASL interlude particularly unfortunate as the Black’s character’s sole narrative purpose was to pop up, give the reader a crash course in BASL, and then promptly fade back into the background).

      But other than those couple of qualms I had a really fun time reading this and I hope you do as well! I gather that Nović’s debut is incredibly different but I’m interested in checking it out now anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like such an interesting book, I loved reading your review. I haven’t been paying much attention to new releases this year, but this book is definitely going on my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great to hear that you enjoyed this one. It’s on my most anticipated list after her fantastic debut (very different in tone, I expect — the Yugoslavian Civil War!) and I just found out I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness. I follow the author on Twitter and she’s really outspoken about Deaf rights and ableism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oooh congratulations on the Shelf Awareness gig, I can’t wait to read your review! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! I still haven’t read Nović’s debut—it was one of those books that I wanted to pick up when it came out but just never got around to it and then sort of forgot it existed. It does sound quite different but I’d love to go back and read it now!


  5. Yes ! I’m looking forward to reading this book, I really loved her debut novel set in the former Yugoslavia, totally different from this one but it left a strong impression on me at that time. I also follow the author on Twitter and the book does reflect her opinions.

    Liked by 1 person

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