“Whisper” by Chrissie Keighery

Another non-NetGalley read, another book I picked up from the library where I work and read it during quiet periods when nobody was trying to find errant copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and there were no mangled books that needed my repair skills and copious supply of sellotape. It’s fairly short, so it didn’t take me long to get through.

whisperI think Whisper is the first book I’ve read where the protagonist and narrator is deaf. I might be wrong about that, but while I’ve occasionally come across minor characters who are deaf, this was a book where deafness was a central issue. I actually picked it up because the cover image reminded me of a friend of mine, but then decided to read it because it looked interesting.

Demi, the protagonist, has been deaf for two years following a serious bout of meningitis. Like, seriously deaf. She can’t hear anything at all. The book deals with her transition to a college for the deaf, and how she struggles with the desire to be ‘normal’ while also feeling excluded among her hearing friends.

It was an interesting exploration of the struggles of being deaf beyond the most obvious ones. Her mother wanted her to go to a mainstream school and learn to hide her disability, while she opts to attend this other school. She’s worried about her friends being ashamed of her because she can’t control how loud she talks very easily. She’s also sometimes ashamed of her own friends, because they’re ‘weird’, because their deafness stops them from blending in seamlessly with those around.

The various deaf characters in the book deal with their disability in a number of different ways. Stella is a passionate campaigner against audism and other discrimination; she wants the world to accept her for who she is, and not insist that she conforms to their standards. If hearing people aren’t obliged to learn to sign, she argues, she shouldn’t have to learn to speak.

But she grew up in a family without hearing parents, so it’s different: she also needs to accept that for Demi, leaving behind the hearing world entirely means losing those closest to her, and she doesn’t want to leave them behind. Demi learns to accept her new life and to support her other deaf friends; Stella learns to see things from Demi’s point of view, too.

I have no deaf or hard-of-hearing friends (as far as I’m aware) and most of these issues were things I’d never come across before, so I found the book educational as well as engaging and emotional. Because it was emotional — very much so, and not necessarily in the weepy, inspiration-porn way, but in a much more genuine way.

It had the added bonus of being set in Australia. I don’t read a whole lot of books that are Australian (whenever I come across one, all I can think is, ‘Oh, Cait‘s probably read this,’ because Cait is like my token Australian friend) and it’s a nice change. That said, I didn’t actually realise it was Australian for ages, until someone mentioned Melbourne.

I think this is partly because it’s not about the setting and because there aren’t many ‘generic Australian’ giveaways (using sign language probably reduces the prevalence of the word ‘mate’). But also, I’ve discovered a lot of Aussie colloquialisms just sound like slightly dated British ones. Nobody I know says ‘footy’ for football anymore, but they used to; that was one word I noticed as coming up quite a bit.

Then again, I’ve been asked before if I’m Australian because my accent occasionally likes to migrate (I’ve also been asked if I’m from Bristol, so…), so that might just be me. Heh.

(Fun fact: I discovered when I try and do a Scottish accent, my London accent interferes and the resulting hybrid sounds like I’m from New Zealand. How? I have no idea. But it has happened.)

Anyway, I found this engaging and emotional and educational, so for that alliteration alone, I’m giving it four stars.

Rating: ****

Buy Whisper on Amazon (UK)

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