True silence. The freezing of all sounds. It wasn’t possible in the modern world, to listen to the sound of true silence. Perhaps not even in the ancient world, either: there was wind in the desert; insects in the depths of the forest; wave activity in the middle of the ocean. Nature did not tolerate silence. Only death accepted silence; and there was silence here.
In The Silent World
, Graham Joyce’s eighteenth book and 2011 World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award nominee, a young couple, Zoe and Jake, on a skiing holiday in the Pyrenees, are caught in an avalanche. Jake frees himself and digs Zoe out. But when they make their way back to their hotel, on the outskirts of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut near the French-Spanish border, everyone is gone, from the slopes, from the hotel, from the town.
It does not take long to figure out the main underlying situation here. The author certainly offers plenty of clues. Thankfully, the characters in the story realize it as well in short order, and the rest is figuring out the details, the significance of the sundry events that occur, the meaning of symbols that appear, the messages that intrude into the bubble, the finer points of their dilemma, and how things will turn out for the couple.
Where Stephen King used enforced isolation in Under the Dome
to look at how a town full of people expose their true selves, Joyce employs a similar external device to contemplate deeper existential concerns with a man and a woman standing in for you and me. Zoe and Jake are in a place where their basic needs are well taken care of, and some exotic ones as well.
“I asked if you thought we’re trapped here, or if we’ve been freed here.”
“Depends on which way you choose to see it.”
“Exactly. There isn’t a right answer, is there? It depends on how we choose to see it. If we choose to see it as if we’re trapped here then our situation is tragic. If we choose to see that we’ve been liberated here, then it’s the opposite.”
“Comic isn’t the opposite of tragic.”
“I mean to say. If we choose to see it the right way, we could have the most magical time here. You and me. Together and alone. We have warmth, shelter, food, the best wine, skiing on wonderful slopes together. It’s paradise: if we choose to accept it. If we choose to call it that.“
They face some crucial questions concerning who they are.
It was true that they had taken many skiing holidays together and after so many it did become difficult to distinguish some of them; but it disturbed her that he couldn’t remember any of it.
“Where has it gone, that holiday?” he said. “How come I can remember others but not that one? I mean, it’s not like my memory is a DVD that fell behind the cupboard. It’s just gone.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said.
“It damn well does matter. What are we if we’re not the sum of our memories?”
we more than the sum of our memories? Do we cease to be who we are/were if/when those memories fade? As someone with a rather unreliable internal hard drive, that is a question with resonance. Am I less myself today because bits of my experience have been sloughed off like dry skin? Are you less your
self? Later, worried about Jake’s fade, Zoe offers an alternative.
She was deeply worried about him, but she said, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because everything you can see or touch or hear or smell has a story attached to it; a story I can tell you. If you say bacon, I can tell you a story. If you say snow, I can tell you a dozen different stories. This is what we are: a collection of stories that we share, in common. This is what we are to each other.”
There is fun to be had with this book, and it is a fast read, particularly considering the core existential subject matter. What do the crows on the police car signify? How about the masked men that appear? Or the large black horses? This combination of serious content and surface gamesmanship made this a fascinating read. We may not spare a lot of time thinking about the things that Zoe and Jake confront but maybe we should, if only we could block out all that bloody noise.Random items
I suppose one could look at the word Haut
in the name of their town where Jane and Zoe stayed two ways. High-class, as in haute cuisine
, and there is certainly some good life to be sampled where they are staying, or in the Germanic meaning of Haut
, which is skin. In that case they were staying on the surface of things without penetrating to the meat. The St Bernard portion of the town name could relate, I suppose, to an ancient saint, but I prefer to think of it as having to do with rescue.
The author seems like a pretty interesting sort, a working class bloke from a mining family, he got a BA in 1977 and an MA in 1980. He worked as a youth officer, which I presume means some sort of social worker-cum-coach for a Youth organization for many years until he and his wife move to Greece, where he wrote his first novel, Dreamside
. It sold, and he became a full time writer from that point. His reputation is as a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction, whatever that means. Here is an item from the Wikipedia page on Joyce that informs us a bit on how fantasy might have come naturally to him
"My grandmother was one of these old women who used to have dreams and visions and messages arriving. She would fall asleep in a chair, there would be a knock on the door, she would go to the door, someone strange would come to the door and deliver a message. And then she would wake up again in her chair. Now my mother and my aunties told me these stories over and over again. But they just lived with it side by side. They didn't fight it as in a fantasy or horror film. They didn't have to overcome it. It didn't get worse and worse and worse. They just accepted this mystery and then they cooked the dinner."
Lest one imagine a contemplative nerd, GJ still plays goal for the England Writers Football team.
The Wikipedia page
Joyce’s own page