A Silent Land, by Graham Joyce

"I won't bother saying that Graham Joyce deserves to find a wide audience in America; rather I think the American audience deserves to discover him." —Jonathan Lethem - Goodreads.

The story begins on a slope in the French Alps, when the whisper of skis on snow is suddenly “displaced by a rumble”. The only two people inhabiting this snowy world are an English couple, Zoe and Jake. They of course have no hope of outracing the avalanche heading their way. They're both quick thinkers and they take cover, clutching desperately for something to hang onto as they’re engulfed.

“Total silence, total darkness.”

The terror does not end there. This is dark and fascinating fiction. What happens next is even more frightening. They manage to claw themselves out of the snow, find the lift operator's post, munch on some chocolate and wait to be rescued. They soon realise no one is coming, so they struggle back to their resort, Saint-Bernard-en-Haut. It is completely deserted. What? Has the village been evacuated? Or has something else, something even more sinister happened? Has the resort been evacuated? Is everyone dead? Jake himself suspects that they’ve both died—but then Zoe begins seeing furtive figures and hearing snatches of speech that suggest this likely explanation is more complex than it seems.But could anyone really have survived the avalanche Zoe and Jake have just endured?

British author Graham Joyce’s latest novel rests upon a familiar horror premise: the idea of being caught in an eerie place where the everyday and the eldritch co-exist. The Silent Land is a most delicate literary balancing act. To make the story work, Joyce has to bring something new to the party to act as a counterpoint. Joyce’s necessary solution, which works at both an emotional and technical level, is to focus on his protagonists, Zoe and Jake, a DINKY (double-income-no-kids-yet) couple who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. They'd planned a luxurious holiday but all is not going to plan, far from it. Luckily, they have each other.

As the full focus is on only two characters, Joyce has made them well rounded, using their present dilemmas and interspersing the odd flashback into their previous lives. Jake is full of himself while Zoe has at times a fragile vulnerability, yet shows an inner strength. The couple bicker playfully, with the usual gender difference jokes. (Zoe to Jake when he plays a tasteless joke: “‘You know what?’ she said. ‘Even as a dead person you can be such an arsehole.’”)

Joyce sketches out the emotional landscape of their marriage as their ordeal runs into days that begin to blur into each other with the strangeness growing exponentially. There are shared memories,there’s a revelation of infidelity, there are secrets they've not shared. Within the constraints of this small, icy world where they only have each other, the microscope is applied to their relationship.

The Silent Land is a short novel. Joyce does not waste words or linger on detail. His prose is spare and to the point, which really works for this storyline. The book is as crisp as new snow, even to the point where you sometimes long for more detail, but that is not the way of this much-awarded fantasy writer.

The book is so compelling. Partnership, the hard slog and joy of marriage, is one of the book’s major themes, and another is death and loss – in particular, how do we carry on when faced with these? Without giving too much away, Joyce’s answer seems to suggest that humans have an innate ability to cling to life, enjoy every last moment, until there’s really just no point in holding on any longer. But what lies ahead?

To return to where I began, Joyce’s novel may start in a familiar territory to readers who may recognise the landscape of skiing, but it’s where it finishes and the emotions that it explores along the way that grab you and won't let you go. This is fantasy fiction at its best.  The whole story is engaging, interesting, haunting, and entertaining.  I predict you’ll laugh nervously; you’ll weep a little, recognising your own humanity, (unless you’re completely heartless); you’ll appreciate your nearest and dearest more than you did before reading this novel. What more could you want from a novel?

L'Aussie's Verdict: 8/10



Dawn Embers said...

Sounds like an interesting book. A situation that one doesn't want to find themselves in, avalanche and all, but one that reading how others handle it could be entertaining. Very good review.

Donna Hole said...

I like character driven plots. I think I'd enjoy this. I'll put it on my TBR list.



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