Book Review: ‘True Biz’: Stunning portrait of Deaf culture

True Biz follows the headmistress and students of River Valley, a school for deaf students. (Photo courtesy of Goodreads)

“True Biz” follows the headmistress and students of River Valley, a school for deaf students. (Photo courtesy of Goodreads)

Did you know that there’s a dialect of Black American Sign Language (BASL) that has a distinct history and set of signs? Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was a eugenicist? I didn’t until I read “True Biz” by Sara Nović: my most educational, inspirational, heartrending, frustrating read of the year.

“True Biz,” named after the colloquial ASL expression meaning “real talk,” follows the story of River Valley, a school for deaf students. The chapters, alternating between points of view and interspersed with visual ASL lessons and snippets of Deaf history, tell the story of February, headmistress of River Valley, and two of her students, Charlie and Austin.

February, who is hearing with a deaf mother, has dedicated her life to preserving Deaf culture and ensuring the safety and success of her students. Austin comes from a prominent family that is deeply entrenched in the Deaf community and has instilled in him a sense of Deaf pride. Charlie, on the other hand, has two hearing parents; she has spent her life trying to adapt to the hearing world through a faulty implant and has fallen behind because of it.

This book has been at the top of my list for a while, and for good reason: “True Biz” is, to be frank, one of the most impossibly brilliant books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Nović strikes a masterful balance between skillfully developing her characters and educating the reader. Nović’s story is the first time in my recollection that I’ve both opened my laptop to research further information about a subject and cried over the characters’ struggles within the span of just a few pages.

This is the first time I’ve been exposed to Deafness as a culture fighting to be preserved in modern society. As a hearing person, it’s easy for me to sympathize with the struggles that members of the Deaf community would face. Until now, it has been less obvious to me to consider the richness of their shared culture and to understand their desire for preservation. This book challenged me to think critically about my preconceived notions of Deafness and caused me to re-evaluate my previously unquestioned perceptions.

I can’t emphasize enough how eye-opening this book is. Nović takes on the monumental task of weaving together the stories of characters whose experiences differ greatly, and she does this with grace and elegance. From the trials of the three main characters to the inclusion of Kayla’s experiences with BASL and Eliot’s religious trauma, this is one of those books that is constructed so brilliantly and artfully that it makes me wonder how it’s possible for an author to achieve it.

I’ve read a lot of wonderful books this year, but “True Biz” takes the gold. For me, the purpose of reading is part enjoyment and escape and part continued education and expansion of the mind. Nović does both of these things in a nearly flawless way. Please, read “True Biz,” and I would bet you’ll walk away with a new favorite.