Books should help us be our best selves, and I think A Quiet Kind of Thunder hits that mark with room to spare.
This is a quick read, and a bit of a light read and a fluffy read in some senses—yet Sara Barnard delivers characters with such compassion and compelling personalities that I was loath to tear myself away. There is a heartwarming quality to this book that would be dull if it weren’t so unapologetically genuine. There were times when I was practically yelling at the book to give me more conflict, give me more drama! Yet Barnard stubbornly refused to yield to my crass expectations, preferring instead the slow burn of well-intentioned mistakes and the missteps of teen romance. And in so doing, in casting aside that temptation for high-octane hair-pulling and dramatic prom-night scenes and other drama, she asks the reader to exist instead in the stillness of Steffi’s life.
The back cover copy of this book is short and almost perfect, but I’ll summarize a bit anyway. Steffi Brons is in sixth form (senior high school for the non-UK crowd). While growing up, Steffi had selective mutism, speaking to her parents and friends when she was alone but having a lot of difficulty speaking in groups or with strangers. Although Steffi’s situation improved slightly over the years—and she has just started medication this year—she still doesn’t talk much outside of her friends and family. Related, Steffi knows British Sign Language, so her head of year pairs her with a new student who is deaf. Steffi and Rhys get along famously, “falling” for each other as one might say.
So what’s the problem? Where’s the conflict? Well that’s the thing—for much of the book, there isn’t much conflict, at least not explicitly on the page. It’s present in the form of subtext and foreshadowing and all the things that go unsaid—and I really love the depth of this—rather than being flashy. I’ll talk about this more in a bit, but first I need to talk about Barnard’s style.
Rhys comments early on in his conversations with Steffi that he loves her voice. He isn’t complimenting her oral communication, because she doesn’t talk much and he, obviously, can’t hear her. Rather, he is talking about how she speaks (writes), the way she uses language. And I have to agree with him. I love her voice too. Passages like this one made me certain I’d enjoy this book from the very beginning:
“… Steffi, what’s the sign for assembly?”
I’m about to obediently make the sign when a spark of mischief lights from nowhere in my mind. I turn to Rhys, keep my expression completely deadpan, then sign Welcome to the hellmouth. Rhys’ whole face lights up into a surprised grin. Oh yeah, strange new boy. The silent girl is FUNNY. Who knew?
First off, hell yes a Buffy reference! That show might be 20 years old this year, but it is still so fantastic. Secondly, I love the humour here. I love Steffi’s self-deprecating self-confidence. It’s easy to assume that people who don’t talk much must by shy, must lack self-confidence. Thanks to this first-person narration, Barnard can show us that isn’t the case. Steffi is a confident teenager; I’d say she’s probably better-adjusted and prepared for life outside of school than many of her peers, arguably (because we don’t see that much of them).
The bold emphasis on the text is A Quiet Kind of Thunder’s way of denoting sign language speech. It works well, especially because Barnard does similar things for other non-speaking modes of communication. When Rhys and Steffi write back and forth, the typeface becomes more like handwriting (for Steffi) or printing (for Rhys). Sometimes, they interchange methods of communication within one conversation, leading to some interesting juxtaposition that I can’t do justice to without a picture (click to embiggen):
This kind of thing can be gimmicky, but it really works here. The same goes for the way that Steffi and Rhys’ texting and jackbytes conversations are laid out. In these, their voices as teenagers really shine. Steffi and Rhys talk the way teenagers talk, and it’s just so comfortable to read that kind of accurate representation.
Representation matters, and it’s everywhere here. Beyond the two main characters dealing with disabilities and mental health issues, Barnard infuses diversity into her cast without making it feel like tokenism. There’s one scene in particular that sticks with me: Steffi and Tem are at the park with their respective younger siblings Bel and Davey. Bel is happily prancing around in her fairy get-up, and Davey is upset because he also wants to be a fairy. When Tem alerts Steffi to this fact, she intercedes with Bel, who grants Davey her wings so they can both be fairies:
“Go on,” Tem coaxes, jiggling her brother in her arms. “Fairy it up.” As Davey reaches a tentative hand out to take the wings—purple and sparkly—she grins at me over the top of his little fuzzy head.
This is a totally superfluous scene; it has nothing to do with the main plot at all—but it is so important. It’s a small but significant example of how we need to challenge the gender binary and gender stereotypes. Maybe Davey is gay. Maybe Davey is trans. Maybe Davey is straight but just wants to be a fairy. We can’t make assumptions, because assumptions are bullshit—but at the end of the day, boys should be able to be fairies if they want to, and they shouldn’t be judged or shamed because of that.
On a related note, I love Steffi and Tem’s friendship, and the way that Steffi is oblivious to her more outgoing friend’s struggle until it all falls down on her.
And that brings me back to conflict in A Quiet Kind of Thunder. There is a fantastic essay in the Women Destroy SF issue of Lightspeed called “The Status Quo Cannot Hold”. In it, Tracie Welser describes her experience at a feminist science fiction symposium and quotes what other notable women authors said, including:
Molly Gloss expressed the need for not only new ways of thinking about character, but narrative itself, saying, “We need stories where conflict doesn’t feature as central to story.”
I remember wanting to unpack that remark the first time I read it, and I’ve been exposed to similar ideas since. We’re taught from an early age that conflict is a necessary ingredient in a story. And notice that Gloss isn’t saying we should get rid of conflict altogether—rather, she is saying it doesn’t necessarily have to be central. A Quiet Kind of Thunder is the first book I’ve read in a long time that helps me to understand what Gloss means by this.
There isn’t really an antagonist here. I mean, Steffi’s mother is probably the closest a character comes to such a role (I think she is a little less fully-realized than some of the other characters, but this is a minor quibble). But there is no character or group of characters out to ruin Steffi’s life. The antagonists are her own mental health, her anxiety and uncertainty over being in a relationship. The antagonists are the mistakes that she and Rhys make that are perfectly natural and expected of two teenagers in love for the first time.
As someone for whom romance does little, in literature or in life, I did find trying to follow these dimensions of conflict a little boring. The back-and-forth of Steffi or Rhys apologizing to one another for something they did or said wrongly just isn’t something I get? Or at least, it’s one of those inscrutable parts of a relationship that I am glad I don’t have to deal with, if only because I don’t get it. That being said, I feel like Barnard does a good job avoiding any overly-contrived situations the kind of which show up too often in a romantic comedy.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder is romantic, and it is comedic, but it is not a romantic comedy. Owing to my own particular comedy of errors (ahem, someone—me—ordered the wrong book) I didn’t read February’s Banging Book Club pick, Nina is Not OK. From the podcast discussion, however, I gather that it was fairly intense. This book is probably a welcome change of pace. Although it deals with important issues in a sensitive way, it is also light-hearted and quite upbeat, especially at the end.