*Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.*
Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder, Barnard’s second novel, is about as close to a perfectly executed contemporary young adult book as anyone is going to get. Balancing beautifully fleshed-out characters, an honest depiction of social anxiety and a refreshingly realistic relationship; it was just gorgeous.
Steffi, our protagonist, had a condition called selective mutism when she was a child and still suffers from severe social anxiety and a level of chronic shyness that many of the people around her can’t comprehend. She struggles to speak in class, she has one friend and people generally talk around or over her as if she can’t hear or understand them. The day that everything changes for Steffi is the day that Rhys shows up at her Sixth Form college. Rhys, as well as being horrendously cute, just happens to be deaf. With her basic knowledge of sign language (BSL), Steffi is tasked with looking after Rhys on his first day at school.
I haven’t read Sara Barnard’s debut novel; Beautiful Broken Things, but after finishing AQKOT I can totally believe the hype surrounding how well she writes female friendships. Whilst this book focuses mainly on first love and romantic relationships in our teenage years, Barnard never loses sight of the importance of friendship and family ties. Steffi’s relationships with both her parents and her step-parents are wonderfully fleshed out, and whilst reading I actually felt that the adult characters added something that so many contemporary YA books seem to lack: a sense of time and place and also a healthy dose of reality. Whilst there are dreamily romantic touches and dialogue, there are also parental spats and family disagreements, which meant I could identify and empathise with Steffi as a normal teenager.
Steffi’s best friend, Tem, is also a key character in AQKIOT and I never felt as if the romance elements overshadowed the beautifully and realistically complex relationship between the two girls, which is supportive, affectionate, competitive and resentful in turn. Barnard has a lovely touch with female friendships, and she manages to convey both the importance and influence that our close teenage friendships can have on our lives and the way that we feel about things.
In general, the characters are wonderfully imagined and very grounded in the real world. I ended up really caring for Rhys and Steffi and their relationship, which struck a balance between being super cute and feeling genuinely authentic. In lots of contemporary YA books, the romance can often be formulaic, and when mental health or disability is thrown into the mix the author so often takes the characters down a path where one ultimately ‘fixes’ the other. Barnard takes that trope and drops it off of Big Ben and into the Thames to never be seen again. Instead of trying to fix eachother’s faults or heal eachother’s cracks and fissures, the young couple grow and learn from each other, facing upto their own issues and the issues within their relationship without merging into one homogenous person. They retain their differences and own opinions, which felt so refreshing because that is actually how a real relationship works.
One of the many, many things that I loved about this book was the clear dedication to research and realistic representation. The portrayal of the deaf community and the way that Barnard illustrated both the difficulty and the brilliance of the ways Steffi and Rhys’ communicated with each other was both very eye-opening and incredibly touching for me. Taking a real-world approach to characters and plot; AQKIOT features people of colour, people with visible and invisible disabilities and characters with mental health issues. Depictions of big families, broken families, sibling relationships, grief, and issues of racism and ableism all sit alongside the central romance; demonstrating that Sara Barnard is not only a talented and accomplished plate spinner, but also an author that cares deeply about representation.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a love story in the very sweetest sense, but it would be a mistake to lump this book into a a fluffy romance category when it has so much more to offer readers. If you like contemporary novels with great representation, beautifully judged relationships, on-the-money writing and a just a twinkle of humour; then this is the book to start 2017 with.
Stars out of five:
- Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
- Pages: 320
- Publication Date: 12th January 2017