The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

silence-xlargeThis is a thriller about an English woman and her profoundly deaf ten-year-old daughter’s journey across Alaska in search of her missing husband. As well as storms, treacherous terrain and uninterrupted darkness (it’s mostly set up in the Arctic Circle), mum and daughter have to contend with a shadowy and relentless figure pursuing them across the tundra. Spooky.

Stylistically the book is mostly on point. It’s very pacy. Short chapters generate a nice sense of momentum, and tender moments of emotional introspection successfully break up the sequences of more visceral terror and violence, stopping them from becoming too tedious and thereby losing their power.

The perpetual night and perpetual snowscape are evocatively described, and it’s impressive that over the course of a 400 page novel, Lupton never runs out of different ways to say “everything was white”. This evocation of Alaska’s sublime and terrifying cold was probably further aided by my own readerly context, as I read the book over the course of a very stormy weekend in deepest winter. I imagine reading this book in Summer would be truly immersion-breaking.

There is the occasional gaffe. I always knew exactly what Lupton was trying to say, but sometimes her phrasing and imagery are a little off; the coloration between the sensations and the images used to describe them sometimes not quite right, “it’s freezing cold; like the air is made of broken glass”. But this is a minor criticism drawn against a narrative style that’s otherwise perfectly serviceable.

The thriller elements of the novel require you to suspend your disbelief to an extreme degree, never more so than when the mum, Yasmin, hijacks an 18-wheeler super rig and, without any training or experience, drives it through storms, over frozen rivers and across the Alaskan wasteland. I was prepared to let this pass in the service of the story, but I wouldn’t blame other readers for not being so generous. The identity of the relentless pursuer, and the dum-dum-duuum Big Reveal of what’s actually going on are disappointingly predictable, and many of the book’s red herrings are a little too obvious. There’s also an on-the-nose eco conspiracy that comes into play more and more as the novel progresses; it’s as subtle as sledgehammer, but its heart is in the right place.

Where the novel really sings, however, is in its portrayal of the relationship between a mum and her deaf daughter. Rosamund Lupton uses two narratorial perspectives (first person for the deaf daughter, and third person for the other, non-deaf characters), and flits between them in such a way as to highlight two radically different ways of being in the world. Sometimes these switches of perspective can be a little disorientating, which you could argue is down to stylistically too-similar voices, but which disorientation I actually enjoyed for its propensity to echo the lost-in-the-storm experience of the characters.

Yasmin’s desire for her daughter, Ruby, to vocalise is heartbreaking when contrasted with Ruby’s assertion that sign language is her “real voice”. Such staples of drama as anger, joy, secrecy and love are simultaneously imbued with a sense of both estrangement and extra clarity when they’re expressed exclusively through signing, written notes, lip-reading and gesture. The featureless, white, silent landscape acts as a satisfying reflection of Ruby’s sense-deprived experience of the world, and the way in which she copes with her situation in Alaska beautifully mirrors her coping with deafness in her ordinary life. This extended metaphor is by far the book’s greatest achievement.

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2 responses to “The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

  1. The broken glass line works for me actually, I know what she means.

    I probably wouldn’t be as forgiving though on the sudden hypercompetence. I mean, it’s a genre thing and you sign up for it to an extent when you sign up for the genre so my objecting to it is a bit like my objecting to a horror novel featuring monsters, but still it’s an area where I tend to struggle to suspend disbelief.

    This seems off your usual beat. What made you pick it up? I’m glad it had the features you discuss in your last two paras as I wonder if otherwise you’d have been less taken by it.

    • Hi Max,

      Holy Moly you’re observant! Good spot: You’re right, this is very much not my usual flavour, and indeed it wasn’t even on my radar, but someone I know lent me a copy with “you HAVE to read this book”-enthusiasm, so I thought, “heh, why not?” and I gave it a try! And yup, it’s the setting-as-metaphor-for-character-experience that really held my attention.

      You’re also right about suspended logic being part and parcel of genre fiction, but there are limits, and “hey, I’l just hijack this 18-wheel rig and drive it across Alaska” is really, really pushing it, even for a fairly bullshit-tolerant reader like myself :).

      As for that like “it’s freezing cold; like the air is made of broken glass” – I *do* know exactly what she’s getting at, but, I dunno, something about the cold/broken glass comparison isn’t as neat or obviously relational as I think it could be. It’s almost, almost there.. but, as I said, just a little.. off.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting,
      T.

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