A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Review)

“I don’t want a boy to be the reason I get better, what would that say about me if it is?”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a moving story of a girl, a boy and voices unheard. Steffi is selectively mute, but she has so much to say. Rhys is deaf, but he understands her perfectly. Their experiences transcend language.

“‘It’s not up to you to make my world smaller or bigger,” I say. “That’s up to me. But I want you to be in it. And I want to be in yours.'”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder presents Steffi’s journey through her first year of sixth form (A Levels) as she navigates her disability, adolescence and family dynamics. This school year is Steffi’s first without Summer by her side to act as a translator, a confidante and a life-long best friend. She’s all alone and miserable about it- until a new boy shows up. Rhys is deaf and Steffi knows some BSL (British Sign Language) and thus their principal assigns Steffi to help Rhys acclimatize to his new school. Only, Rhys isn’t like anything she was expecting. He’s goofy, well-intentioned and a genuinely good guy- a far cry from the broody, macho and “nice-guy” men that have inundated the Young Adult genre. The two become closer, passing hurdle after hurdle in their personal development and their relationship.

Their relationship isn’t presented as a solution to Steffi’s problem, nor does Rhys ‘save’ Steffi or vice versa. Their relationship is borne of friendship and mutual understanding. It is not perfect nor is it convenient- it is organic. They both help each other and bolster their mutual interests.

“People really like explanations. They like explanations and recovery stories. They like watching House and knowing a solution is coming. They like to hear that people get uncomplicatedly better.”

People approach mental illness in mostly the same way: with insensitive questions and preformed assumptions. For Steffi, who suffers from shyness, crippling anxiety and selective mutism, this means a lifetime under a microscope- the last place she wants to be. What trauma caused her silence? Does she have a weird voice? Cat got her tongue? Steffi has been selectively mute from the age four, and at a tender age before she even knew the meaning of trauma. Steffi has a normal voice, thank you for your concern. Steffi doesn’t have a cat, but she does have Rita, “the sweetest dog on Earth” and her best friend.

Steffi’s illness will never be uncomplicated. There is no magical solution to it. Every day is a battle against panic attacks and blocks on her tongue. The world doesn’t have enough patience for an illness they cannot see.

As the book unfolds we watch Steffi grow and mature as she comes to grips with her illness. The dichotomy of the speaking world and the non-speaking world is pronounced, and as readers we are pleased to watch Steffi begin to navigate both with courage. The way Barnard handled Steffi and Rhys’ plotline was fantastic; it was sensitively portrayed and well-researched. They haven’t been reduced to their illness, nor has their illness taken a backseat to their romance.

“One of the things I both hate and love about BSL is how it forces you to be genuine. Half-hearted apologies just don’t work when you’re communicating with your eyes and your hands. You have to mean it, or it is meaningless.”

This book is unique in that not only is it a sensitive portrayal of illness and a relationship, but it incorporates BSL, family and multimedia into its tale seamlessly. Barnard supplants conversation with BSL and the narrative is so immersive that while I read this book, I started learning sign language. Furthermore, the incorporation of Instant Messaging, texts and emojis didn’t feel like pandering to a young audience or gimmicky, instead, these elements worked well within the story and supplanted it. The important presence and role of family made the book feel real to me, and the book dealt well with loss and both of Steffi’s homes after her parents’ divorce and remarriage. Steffi’s feelings felt real and her conversations with her mother and father both played important roles in Steffi’s development and maturation.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder lives up to its title: this small story echoes in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.

Written by Maryam Khan

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