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.