Graham Joyce’s ‘The Silent Land’

The Silent LandSome of my colleagues are off skiing with their students at the moment, actually, so it seems entirely appropriate that I look at a novel by one of my favourite authors which deals with skiing. And life, love and death, too, obviously…

The Silent Land is one of the late Graham Joyce’s last novels.  Published in 2011, three years before his untimely death in September of last year, it is a mature, contemplative work, which takes a simple premise and, through a compelling mix of deft plotting and a slow accumulation of detail, turns it into something profound and moving.

I’ve liked Joyce ever since I read The Tooth Fairy, a criminally neglected coming-of-age novel that takes the tooth fairy myth and does something disturbing, magical and ultimately life-affirming with it.  Like Jonathan Carroll, his work often inhabits the grey, difficult to define hinterland where fantasy, horror and contemporary fiction meet and mingle.

The Silent Land appears, at first, to be about a young married couple, Zoe and Jake, who are on a skiing holiday in the French Pyrenees and are caught up in an avalanche.  The pair manage to free themselves only to find that their village is deserted.  As the novel progresses, the true nature of the couple’s situation becomes increasingly obvious to the reader and, eventually, to Zoe and Jake themselves.  While there remains an element of mystery about their circumstances right up until the last chapter, that mystery is not really the primary focus of the novel.  Rather, it provides the blank canvas on which Joyce paints a compelling examination of what it means to be, well, together.

Zoe and Jake are likeable characters and Joyce does a good job giving them their own distinct voices.  They disagree, they bicker, they keep secrets from one another, but their love towards one another is never in doubt.  Ultimately that love is not so much defined by physical or emotional intimacy (although there’s a lot of both) but more by their commitment to each other’s welfare.  This is even true of Jake’s last act in the novel which seems to be a betrayal but turns out to be something much more selfless.  The Silent Land’s determined focus on this central relationship could, in lesser hands, have led to a story too loosely structured, too devoid of tension to be interesting.  While there are moments in the first third of the novel where the story seems to meander a little, Joyce dripfeeds enough small but significant moments of revelation to keep the plot from stalling.

Joyce’s prose is elegant but never ostentatious and key motifs are reintroduced at significant moments in often powerful ways.  His restraint in the use of flashbacks is also appreciated by this reader.  When they are deployed in the last third of the novel, they are extraordinarily moving with Jake’s memories of his father’s death being particularly powerful.  There are moments of genuine uncanny horror, too.  Zoe sees and hears things that Jake cannot.  These moments of increased perception are disturbing and nightmarish.  They obviously possess symbolic meaning but remain, for Zoe at least, frustratingly difficult to interpret.  This difficulty with interpretation is, perhaps, the hardest trick of all for Joyce to pull off.  Zoe and Jake are not stupid (in fact, in some respects, they’re very intelligent characters), but their instinctive desire to be together dulls their capacity to think through some of the implications of what they’re experiencing.

And that is one of the main points of the novel, perhaps the last point before the story’s climax: as much as being in love means wanting to be together, there also comes a time when the right thing to do – the loving thing to do – is to let the other person go.

The novel’s ending is, quite frankly, astonishing in its simple power.  Plot elements introduced much earlier in the story are tied up with impressive skill and sentimentality is avoided with the same neatness and deftness of touch that, to be fair, Joyce has displayed all novel long.  Although dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter, the novel ends up being about life – about its value, about its fragility, about its phenomenal strength.

And speaking of strength, The Silent Land is a book that reminded me again of Joyce’s strengths as a writer – of his skill at writing flawed, believable characters, of his skill at producing subtle moments of unexpected disquiet.  More importantly, however, the book reminded me of why we need literature, why we need stories, why we need things that are not true – that can never, in fact, be true – to remind us of the truths that we forget.

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