April 2022

True Biz

By Sara Novic
Review by
At times somber, often bitingly funny, awash in playfulness and fiercely proud, True Biz is a masterfully crafted love letter to Deaf culture.
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Sara Nović’s second novel is a vibrant celebration of Deaf culture and Deaf communities. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf in the struggling industrial town of Colson, Ohio, True Biz follows the interconnected lives of several students and teachers over the course of one tumultuous year. It’s a remarkable book that is many things at once: a primer on Deaf history, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a riotous political awakening, a family saga and a richly layered character study.

February, the headmistress of River Valley, is a hearing child of deaf adults. She’s trying desperately to keep the school afloat in the face of ongoing budget cuts, while also taking care of her aging mother and trying to keep her marriage intact. Austin is the golden boy of River Valley. He grew up immersed in Deaf culture, but his blissful life is shaken when his baby sister is born hearing, causing hidden tensions between him and his hearing father to rise to the surface. Charlie is a deaf teen with a cochlear implant, whose hearing parents, at the urging of doctors, didn’t allow her to learn American Sign Language as a child. Arriving at River Valley in the wake of her parents’ divorce, she meets other deaf people for the first time, begins learning ASL and discovers the joys and challenges of being part of a community that speaks a language she can understand.

Though written in English, the book is bursting with ASL, offering an exploration into the power of language and the violence of language deprivation, the beauty of free and open communication, and the possibilities (and limitations) of translation. Throughout the novel, signed conversations are translated into English, each chapter heading is an illustration of a character’s name sign, the first signed letter of their name. Interspersed among the chapters are school assignments and other ephemera that detail ASL lessons and exercises.

The narrative moves in and out of the three main characters’ points of view, offering intimate glimpses into their inner lives. The novel’s sense of emotion builds slowly, from Austin’s intensifying anger and February’s growing desperation to Charlie’s burgeoning confidence. By the end of the book, each character is changed, and their transformations are explored with a beautifully subtle touch.

Deaf rights activist Nović incorporates so many issues that affect the Deaf community, including education inequality and the rise of cochlear implants. Though it focuses on three central characters, the story feels symphonic as the entire River Valley community comes to life. At times somber, often bitingly funny, awash in playfulness and fiercely proud, True Biz is a masterfully crafted love letter to Deaf culture.

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True Biz

True Biz

By Sara Novic
Random House
ISBN 9780593241509

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