Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“Who was I? That was not a question I could answer very easily anymore. I had ambitions for my future, but who was I right now? A Deaf girl suddenly dropped into the middle of a hearing world I was positive I didn’t belong in anymore.”
Since losing her hearing to meningitis at the age of thirteen, Maya Harris has attended a school for the Deaf in New Jersey, where all her friends are part of the Deaf community. But when her mother moves the family to Colorado, she is faced with attending a hearing school for her senior year, ASL interpreter in tow for all her classes. Maya dreams of becoming a respiratory therapist, so she can help kids like her brother Connor, who has Cystic Fibrosis, but that seems like tall order when she struggles to participate in group discussions, or get most of her new peers to see her as anything other than the strange new Deaf girl. But Beau Watson seems willing to try, even if his first attempts at ASL are a total disaster. Maya is defensive, and worried about her future, but perhaps it is worth giving Beau a chance to overcome their differences.
Alison Gervais—who is hard of hearing herself, and works as a deaf services specialist—makes a number of effective stylistic choices designed to render Maya’s experiences of spoken and signed language into print form. Ellipses are used to demonstrate how she is piecing together the conversation despite missing words when she lip reads. ASL is rendered in capital letters, including the different grammar rules and the absence of verb tenses. Maya’s transition to a hearing school also allows Gervais to easily integrate matters of etiquette, like speaking directly to the deaf person rather than their interpreter.
Gervais places a strong emphasis on Deaf culture and community, which she works into the story despite the fact that Maya has left much of her community behind. Maya signs on video calls with her best friend from New Jersey, Melissa, who was born deaf. As a result, Melissa’s text messages reflect ASL grammar, since it is her first language. Maya has also opted not to get cochlear implants, a medical device that would directly stimulate the auditory nerve, but which would require a major surgery and significant amounts of speech therapy afterward. Both the story and Gervais’ author note makes clear that this is a subject of controversy and debate within the Deaf community, and that Maya’s choice represents one position. Although there are not a lot of Deaf characters in the book, we nevertheless get a glimpse of some of the diversity within the community, beyond this single narrative.
Although Maya’s growing romance with Beau is a significant part of the story, her family relationships and friendships are also central. With a single mom, and a brother with a chronic health condition, Maya feels the pressure to help take care of her brother, and make sure that she isn’t causing any additional problems for her mom. Beau faces a similarly tense home life, where his father, a pediatric surgeon, is pushing for Beau to attend Yale and study medicine. While I enjoyed the overall portrayal of the family relationships, Maya’s brother Connor could have been further developed beyond his Cystic Fibrosis. He is a significant motivator for Maya’s behaviours and career ambitions, but not a well-developed character in his own right.
Maya is a prickly heroine, but her defensiveness belies her hopeful vision for the future, and her desire to connect with people who love her for herself, and accept her the way she is. The Silence Between Us patiently develops these crucial relationships, highlighting the importance of community and acceptance.
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