The Quality of Silence
Little, Brown Book Group UK
Pub date: Jul 2, 2015
“The light from their headlights was becoming dimmer, hardly penetrating the darkness, as if a lid was closing on them”
Rosamund Lupton is already an author of two Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling novels: Sister, and Afterwards. I have lost count of the number of times I have picked up Sister in book shops and considered buying it, without ever actually doing so: never quite sure whether it was something I should read or not. I’m no longer thinking that. If the quality of her third novel, The Quality of Silence, is anything to go by I think I really do need to make time to read both Sister and Afterwards as soon as possible.
The Quality of Silence tells the story of ten year old Ruby and her Mother Yasmin’s journey to Alaska to re-unite with Ruby’s father and wildlife photographer/filmmaker Matt. Yasmin has decided to go after Matt had admitted to kissing another woman, Corazon: “I kissed her because I missed you”, and she wants to sort out their relationship. But things are immediately thrown off course when on landing in Alaska Yasmin is told the village Matt has been based at, Anaktue, has suffered a catastrophic fire and all the inhabitants including her husband have been killed. To prove it, they have even recovered his wedding ring from the remains.
Yasmin refuses to believe she could have traveled this far for Matt to be dead, and convinces herself – if not the local police, as led by Captain Grayling – that he must, somehow, have found a way out and be alive … somewhere. She decides they will travel to the village or as near as they can get to it, and find him. At first her plans seem to be thwarted by the weather, but then she persuades lonely trucker Adeep Azizi to give her and Ruby a lift. Within hours they are driving alone – bar the voices of other drivers on the CB radio – across a frozen wilderness. But who is driving the large truck with blue lights that is following them, a truck none of the other CB drivers seems to believe exists; and, who is emailing Yasmin photos of dead animals?
Part Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, part Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, part Spielberg’s Duel what unfolds is a gripping, claustrophobic, and – quite literally – chilling thriller.
The action takes place in an environment where the only people that seem to be around are innuits, truck drivers and American fracking companies. It’s a place which seems to be miles and miles of vast nothingness, and where the weather and the environment can make it blindingly white and dark. The contrast between this chilling darkness and Lupton’s decision to make Ruby deaf is one of the most striking things in the book, and the very thing that gives the book its heart and character development.
This is Ruby’s book. Her narrative is the one told in the first person, whilst Yasmin’s is told in the third – though it loses no sense of emotion and feeling in doing so: “Looking back at herself, she thought, that her crossness was like shapeless overcoat, covering loneliness…” It’s a book about language and how we communicate [I had an urge to put Kate Bush’s ’50 Words for Snow’ on as background music] It’s a book that deals wonderfully with the idea of language and what it means to ‘speak’ . I love the occasional ‘tweets’ we get of Ruby’s throughout the book in which she gives meaning to words by how she feels they look and feel and taste.
@Words_No_Sounds: ANXIETY: Looks like a chessboard with the squares quickly moving about; feels sweaty and shivery; tastes like prickly ice-cream.
It’s a seemingly simple device but it helps bring the character to life, and makes you as a reader think about language differently. This is something Yasmin has yet to really do. Yasmin is a scientist who has let motherhood become her sole defining characteristic, she has retreated into life and her main battle has been with Matt over Ruby’s integration into ‘normal’ society, as highlighted by her continuing instance that Ruby ‘use her words’, meaning using her mouth and vocalising, rather than signing. ” Yasmin wasn’t going to stop asking her. Her determination that ruby would speak, that one day her daughter would be heard, was undiminished.”
And yet, to Ruby, signing, or using the laptop to type her words, IS her using her words.
There is a lovely touching moment of clarity for Yasmin when in the heart of a snow storm she shouts and realises she can’t be heard, even by herself; her voice is immediately lost in the surroundings and suddenly she gets Ruby’s feeling about ‘speaking’: it’s not the act that bothers her it’s that she doesn’t and cannot hear how it sounds.
This is a terrific read. The book does lose a bit of its tension and claustrophobia in its final fifth, where exposition rather than events take more of the lead, but it has already earned enough in its first four-fifths for this to be a very minor criticism of a first rate, and masterfully paced, thriller. Expect it to complete a hat-trick of best seller and critical successes for Lupton.
Review copy provided by Little Brown / Netgalley