Saturday, April 16, 2016
Review: THE QUALITY OF SILENCE
by Rosamund Lupton (Crown, 2016)
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
On 24 November Yasmin and her ten-year-old daughter Ruby set off on a journey across Northern Alaska. They're searching for Ruby's father, missing in the arctic wilderness.
More isolated with each frozen mile they cover, they travel deeper into an endless night. And Ruby, deaf since birth, must brave the darkness where sight cannot guide her. She won't abandon her father. But winter has tightened its grip, and there is somebody out there who wants to stop them.
This is a beautifully written, chilling - in all senses of the word - psychological thriller set in the icy darkness of midwinter Alaska. Lupton draws us in with the voice of her characters and the elegance of her prose, crafting an absorbing tale that kept me hooked even though much of the book is centred on a mother and daughter travelling north in the cab of a truck. Like classic suspense or horror films where a quieter, creeping sense of unease was utilised more than lots of violent action or a twisting series of events, The Quality of Silence adroitly builds in a slow-burn kind of way, gripping throughout and delivering a powerful emotional impact.
Ruby is a young girl who lives in silence. Deaf since birth, she experiences and interacts with the world in a different way to her peers, giving her a strength and perhaps even wisdom beyond her years. Her parents, Matt and Yasmin, each deal with her deafness in different ways. When Ruby and her mother travel to Alaska to meet up with her father, they are met with tragic news. The Inuit village in northern Alaska where Matt was based has been destroyed by fire. There are no survivors.
But what if Matt did, somehow, survive? For a mosaic of reasons Yasmin feels driven to head north and find her daughter's father, a man she loved but believes may have cheated on her while on assignment. Their marriage had become strained, cracks appearing in the previously loving patina.
Ruby isn't aware of everything going on, but wants to find her Dad, and the pair hitch a ride north with a trucker experienced in hauling goods across Alaska's dangerous winter roads. Constrained within the warmth of the truck cab, we learn more about Ruby and Yasmin as they head north, a tiny speck of hope and safety in an ocean of ice and snow where death and darkness are ever-present.
Lupton does a good job evoking the harsh Alaskan environment and creating a claustrophobic and chilling atmosphere. Stepping back, this is more character study than thriller. Events just unfold in a relatively linear fashion, and although I often felt concern for the characters, I wouldn't call it a thrilling read. Absorbing and elegant, yes. Intriguing, definitely. For some readers this may not be enough, and they may be put off by the slow pace and lack of action or events, but for me the writing was just so beautiful, and the character of Ruby so appealing, that I was drawn in for the ride.
It is quite fascinating to get inside the head of a young deaf girl, and be exposed to some issues that we may overlook in 'the hearing world', even if we think we might understand or have a little insight from seeing deaf characters on TV or film. Lupton brings us into that world, and the silence Ruby experiences, along with the silence of the Alaskan winter environment, creates a haunting ambiance.
Yasmin, on the other hand, is a bit of a cold character, harder to connect with or understand. She seems to make a number of bizarre choices, and looks at the world through quite a narcissistic and self-absorbed view rather than caring for her daughter or understanding the concerns or perspectives of those around her or the situation she is in. I found myself almost wanting to skip ahead at times when the story was focused on her viewpoint rather than Ruby's, although this improved as the novel unfolded, and there is a degree of courage in her character that is admirable. Regardless, I was captivated enough by the character and voice of Ruby and the writing overall to not be too bothered.
Overall I found The Quality of Silence to be an extremely well-written tale full of poetic prose and vivid atmosphere that is an absorbing, chilling journey into the harsh and dangerous environment that can lie within our minds and souls as much as in the world around us.
Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson