Contemporary fiction, especially of the fluffy romance kind, is not a genre I reach for particularly often (Originally posted on Reading Autistically.
Contemporary fiction, especially of the fluffy romance kind, is not a genre I reach for particularly often (not enough dragons) but I do occasionally pick one up if there's something about it that catches my attention. And this had that with just two little magic words: selective mutism.
Selective mutism is not something your average person has ever even heard of, a social anxiety disorder that renders an otherwise verbal person mute in certain situations. Or in slightly less technobabbly words, someone who can speak perfectly fine, sometimes physically just can't. I have suffered from this my entire life (yes, I am a socially anxious, selectively mute autistic, I won the social skills lottery!) so, my opinions on this book are a little on the bias (and mildly incoherent) side because holy heck, someone actually acknowledged that this is a thing that exists. Just seeing the words written in black and white in an actual honest to goodness YA novel was like being punched in the heart. In a good way. Probably earned a good half star right there. And not only that, Barnard nailed it.
"The words just aren't there; that's what it feels like. As if the words I form in my brain have got stuck there instead of zipping down the neural superhighway to my mouth."
Steffi, our protagonist and POV character, was utterly wonderful, funny, clever, very realistically teenage, and the best portrayal of anxiety I've read, her inner monologue just spot on accurate to what it actually feels like; the frustration and guilt and shame and the for-goodness-sake-just-talk-to-the-bus-driver-ness of it all. She has panic attacks with no trigger, loses her words for no apparent reason and yet can speak when it's just as irrational. Being selectively mute is a thoroughly inconvenient and distressing thing that is very difficult to put into words, yet here they were. Even her list very early on in the book of the worst times to be mute starting off with "when you need the toilet" just made me cackle with recognition, don't think I asked to go to the bathroom a single time in my entire school career.
Rhys, our male lead, was another wonderful and thoroughly lovable character, instantly charming, funny, a little bit cheeky, and he has a cat called Javert so, you know. He's also both deaf and mixed race which makes a very nice change from the standard abled-white-boy who tends to be the romantic interest in, well, everything. I'm not deaf, nor do I know anyone personally who is, so I can't be sure how accurate the representation of that aspect of the story was but it felt pretty genuine and respectful. The inclusion of examples of some commonly used BSL (British Sign Language) throughout was an interesting and dynamic addition to the story, giving a tiny glimpse into the intricacies of another language the hearing world barely acknowledges the existence of, even the chapter headings and end pages are used, illustrated with the BSL alphabet and numbers.
In YA dealing with mental illness and more general disability there is an unfortunate and rather damaging tendency to have the character get a boyfriend (or girlfriend) and be miraculously cured by the power of love. Shockingly, this isn't actually how it works in real life, falling in love won't cure your mental illness any more than it'll cure a broken leg. Thankfully that horrible cliche is not to be found here, Rhys helps Steffi, sure, but he's just one factor alongside medication, therapy and other changes in her life, she's already getting better before he even comes along. Steffi learns to communicate more but in small steps, on the long haul and in her own way, recognising and accepting that verbal communication isn't the be all and end all of everything.
"people take speech communication for granted and they think anyone who communicates differently is weird or different."
The story explores beyond the budding romance and into the reality of what it is to live in a speaking, hearing world when you can't communicate like everyone else. As a society we really do a disservice to people by treating forms of communication other than verbal as somehow lesser, as a failing and a tragedy, no matter the reason for using them. Steffi struggles often because verbal communication is treated like the only viable option and anything else is "hiding". Rhys struggles not because he can't hear but because other people don't even think about it, they look away from him when he's trying to lip read, they speak too quickly, or they start talking more loudly as if that'll suddenly make a difference. The biggest problem isn't their respective differences, it is that the world doesn't make room for them.
The story being about two people with communication difficulties meant that the standard format of dialogue wasn't treated as standard, Steffi and Rhys communicate through a combination of BSL, lip reading, writing and instant messaging, each denoted clearly with some clever formatting. And it is all treated as valid, as meaningful, as just as good as verbal communication. And as someone who seriously struggles with the same issues, it is wonderful to see. For years I've wished that someone had suggested me learning BSL when I was a child, I often find myself regretting that I don't know it and reading this made that yearning all the stronger. Frankly I think that at least the basics should be taught as standard in schools, though that's a whole other tangent.
Though the emphasis was on the romance, which was actually a pleasant slow burn rather than an insta-love, there were plenty of other fantastic relationships to be found here and with an array of diverse characters both in terms of disability and race. Steffi and her best friend Tem were fabulous, the supportive, easy, teasing comfort of long-time friendship that survives all differences. There was a pleasing lack of girl rivalry here generally, instead everyone just wants what's best for everyone else, at least in their own way. Steffi's parents are long divorced and both happily remarried, a solid and supportive family that gets on, another thing that is nice to see. There was also so much sex positivity, with no shaming of decisions, consent asked for and respected, safe sex actually acknowledged and talked about. And holy hilarious awkward sex scene, Batman!
On the whole this was a fairly standard girl meets boy and adorableness ensues story, so sweet it could potentially give you diabetes, there's nothing ground-breaking here and if you don't like this kind of story this isn't going to change your mind, but if you do, even just occasionally, this is well worth your time. Because damn if it wasn't executed well, fluffy goodness at its best that reads smoothly and quickly with a good dollop of diversity while it was at it, and sometimes it's not the big lightning flash but the little rumble of thunder that is just what we need....more