What I Didn’t Say Review

Title: What I Didn’t Say

Author: Keary Taylor

Available in eBook?: Yes

Genre: Contemporary YA Romance

Final Verdict: Buy (with reservations)

My Take: Muteness is not seen often in literature, even less so than many other disabilities, and What I Didn’t Say is a unique romance since it’s told exclusively from the male protagonist’s perspective. Although it gets off to a slow start, it is a sweet story, albeit marred by a lack of research on the author’s part and a distasteful view toward ASL.

What I Didn’t Say is another first-person young-adult contemporary romance with a recently injured male lead. The difference between this novel and most like it (for example, the book I reviewed last week, His Eyes) is that Jake is the narrator. Since he suffers from muteness (an inability to speak or make any sound) for the majority of the book, this is an especially interesting choice on the part of the author, as it puts us inside his head.

Jake is a high school senior who loves to fly and dreams of joining the Air Force after graduation. He lives in the small community of Orcas Island off the coast of Washington state, and has been “in love” with one of his fellow classmates, Samantha (“Sam”) Shay since freshman year, but has been too shy to admit it. The whole premise of the book is that he never got a chance to say “I love you” to her. In fact, he loses his speech after he gets drunk with his friends at a party and they crash their car en route to her house so he can finally tell her.

The premise of the book is interesting, and I like the idea of getting inside the male protagonist’s head. However, I’m not in love with the format of the book (each chapter begins with a kind of countdown, like “10 months till Air Force”), and I wasn’t super crazy about the way the author bounces around in the timeline early in the book. I also didn’t feel like I really knew who Jake was until late in the novel, which may seem odd considering he’s the narrator, but I just didn’t feel like he was a real person for most of it. Samantha felt like more of a well-rounded character to me than Jake. Although Jake is dynamic, it was harder for me to accept his “change” since I didn’t have a good feel of who he was before hand.

With that in mind, I was also disappointed by some medical inaccuracies surrounding his injury, treatment, and recovery. Granted, I probably know a lot more about this than most people (especially since I’ve done a lot of research about aphonia–the medical term for muteness–for one of my current novels-in-progress, Outsider), but it soured the book a bit for me. The author’s hostility and lack of knowledge of ASL also hurt the book in my mind more than anything else, which is especially disappointing since she includes an author’s note explaining how she’s hard of hearing.

Firstly, it was extremely disappointing how clear it was the author did little to no research on ASL before writing this book. Signs are never explained, or they are used incorrectly. For example, at one point, Jake says he signs “laugh” to mean “funny”: why wouldn’t he simply sign “funny” (bobble a finger on your nose)? Another, and this really irked me (especially in light of Outsider), is when Jake mentions how “I am mute” is one of the few phrases he knows, and he only knows enough of the ASL alphabet to sign his name. There is no sign in ASL for “mute“! To sign “mute,” you have to spell it out (part of this goes back to the way hearing people will often refer to deaf individuals as “deaf and mute” and part of it goes with the hostility many in the Deaf community feel toward hearing, but mute individuals). This error occurs early in the story and at that point, even more so than the lack of medical knowledge, I shut down a little as a reader. Authors need to earn the reader’s trust, and moments like that don’t do anything towards getting me to trust that you know what you’re talking about.

But, OK, let’s say you can put aside the fact that 105-degree temperature would likely kill you and you wouldn’t be conscious, let alone cognizant; let’s put aside the fact that Ms. Taylor wouldn’t know the difference between “fuck you” and “perfect” in sign language, or that the number three is signed with your thumb, index, and middle finger. What really, really made me hostile to the book was the number of times Jake slams ASL for being “cold” and “impersonal.”  Has Ms. Taylor ever seen a native signer sign? ASL is a beautiful, rich, and incredibly expressive language–in many ways, more so than spoken English! It also annoyed me how she could portray Jake as developing heightened expressiveness in his facial expressions and body language, yet still has Jake bemoaning how “weak” of a language ASL is. I realize that he’s the narrator, and that his words aren’t necessarily the author’s, but Jake’s attitude toward signing, combined with the author’s lack of knowledge of the language, made me inclined to see his view as hers. This view was especially annoying in light of the fact that Jake doesn’t complain about written English as being “cold” or “impersonal” (I would think it would be compared to a dynamic, full-body language like ASL), and his obsession with needing to tell (out loud) Sam that he loves her. He couldn’t learn to sign this? Either the long- or shorthand? Jake never signs “I love you” to Sam. Ever. It’s not like they’re hard signs to learn, either. Most people know them (“love” is simply arms crossed on your chest, as if hugging yourself, and the shorthand is a familiar pop symbol, seen above).

I love you, my lips formed. I may have only been able to mouth it, but it didn’t make the words any less true.

That said, the story is sweet, and especially about fifty-percent or so into the book I really was pulling for Jake and Sam–although mostly for Sam’s sake, I should say. I really, really liked her character and she felt more “real” to me than Jake did–as I mentioned earlier.

Still, the way Jake handles his muteness, for the most part, was well done. He vacillates between fear and anger and depression and acceptance. He often feels as if he’s “trapped inside” himself, and he’s able to come to terms with his new life for the most part thanks to his relationship with Sam.

It’s disappointing that this book wasn’t more carefully researched and that Jake’s character wasn’t better developed, because the setting was fantastic and Sam’s character was very well done, and What I Didn’t Say could have turned out to be a great book. It would have been phenomenal for Jake to realize he didn’t need to say “I love you” out loud for it to mean something, that actions and (gasp) sign language could have easily expressed it as well, if not better than words. As much as I love to see ASL in fiction, I think I’d prefer to not see it than to see it handled wrongly or disdainfully.

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