The Silent Land by Graham Joyce
Published: Gollancz, 2010
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society Award, World Fantasy Award
“In the French Pyrenees, a young married couple is buried under a flash avalanche while skiing. Miraculously, Jake and Zoe dig their way out from under the snow-only to discover the world they knew has been overtaken by an eerie and absolute silence. Their hotel is devoid of another living soul. Cell phones and land lines are cut off. An evacuation as sudden and thorough as this leaves Jake and Zoe to face a terrifying situation alone.
They are trapped by the storm, completely isolated, with another catastrophic avalanche threatening to bury them alive . . . again. And as the couple begin to witness unsettling events neither one can ignore, they are forced to confront a frightening truth about the silent land they now inhabit.” ~WWend.com
I had never read any Graham Joyce before, though I have heard his name come up from time to time. When I saw that The Silent Land was up for two awards this year, I decided to read it. I’m don’t know whether The Silent Land is a particularly good example of Joyce’s body of work or not.
I found the idea of the novel interesting, if a little bit familiar. I felt like there were many directions it could have been taken, but the plot ended up moving along the most well-worn path. About halfway through the book, it was fairly obvious how everything was going to pan out, and there were not really any more surprises along the way. There’s a lot of discussion about materialism, living a worthwhile life, and valuing relationships, but I didn’t feel like it ever went anywhere beyond the usual platitudes. I think it would be entertaining for anyone in the mood for a predictable, sentimental story.
The main (and just about only) characters, the young upper-middle-class couple Jake and Zoe, seemed very blank to me. They both had incredibly generic personalities, possibly a deliberate choice to help many readers see themselves in the characters. I felt like Jake and Zoe would best be described by the majority opinions from a poll of fairly young (late 20s/early 30s) upper-middle-class, childless, western couples on their opinions and relationship problems. However, what interests me in characters aren’t the opinions they have in common with the majority of their demographic, it's the things, bad or good, that set them apart.
Information about Jake and Zoe is given through explicit statements or stories, but even these facts don’t always seem to have any affect on their personality or behavior. For instance, Jake states that he’s a veterinarian. Past his initial statement, this fact is almost never referenced again. I have a friend who is studying veterinary medicine, and I can think of a handful of quirks he has that are a result (or cause) of his chosen specialty. Here, the fact that Jake is a vet seems completely irrelevant, as it has no impact on his general characterization. Most of the book is focused around Jake, Zoe, and their relationship, so my disappointment with their characterization seriously affected how much interest I had in the story.
The writing itself was also not particularly to my taste. It was very spare in some places, but it tended towards fanciful comparisons in descriptions. As an example, Zoe describes the moon:
“It seemed supernaturally large; like an inflated berry of mistletoe, or a pearly bauble hanging on a Christmas tree. She gasped. Its light looked milky, liquid, sticky even. She could easily see the crater shadows on the moon. It was almost like an unblinking eye, gazing in at her from the clear night sky, remote yet interested.” (p. 111, e-book version)
The number of different comparisons in such a short description makes it seem a little overwrought, to me. There was a lot of dialogue between Jake and Zoe, but I often felt that their words were very stilted and awkward. As an example of what I mean, at one point they have the following exchange:
Zoe: “I didn’t hear anything.”
Jake: “I wasn’t imagining it.”
Zoe: “I‘m not saying you did.”
Jake: “I know you’re not saying I did. When I say I’m not imagining things, I’m talking to myself.” (p. 72, e-book version)
That’s pretty representative of the usual way they interact. It reminded me of how I speak when I’m learning a foreign language, repeating phrases unnecessarily. I also felt like there was a lot of telling over showing, particularly where Zoe’s and Jake’s emotions were concerned. The novel was very short, but it still felt a little stretched out to me. I feel like the content of the story might have been better fitted to a shorter fiction format.
My Rating: 2.5/5
The Silent Land has an interesting premise, but the story ends up following a very well-worn path. The lead characters, Jake and Zoe, seem such a generic representation of their demographic that it was hard for me to care about them as individuals. I felt like there was a lot more telling than showing going on in the narrative, and the frequent dialogue between Jake and Zoe seemed strangely stilted. Overall, I think The Silent Land is a story fitted to specific tastes that just happen to not be mine. If you feel like reading a bittersweet, sentimental story that offers all of the usual commonplaces about love, relationships, and what really matters in life, then you might find this book to be exactly what you’re looking for.