Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a beautifully-crafted novel.
It would give Michael Chabon’s stunning novel, Telegraph Avenue, my favorite book of 2012, a run for the money had I read it last year.
Picture a world of snow.
It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place.
Joyce’s lyrical descriptions of snow are gorgeous. Every snowflake is perfect as it falls onto Zoe’s husband’s eyelashes. Zoe truly loves Jake, is charmed by everything about him from his beautiful eyes to his big ears, and describes his breath in the cold as “a faint oyster-colored mist.” The nature of love shapes this luminous novel.
But the plot is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife. Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday. One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else when the powder of the snow is undisturbed. It is Paradise.
Then there is an avalanche. Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air. Jake made it to the trees and clung to one.
But they cannot leave the village. They reach a certain point in the road and the car stubbornly stops working.
They have all the food they want at the hotel. They have all the things they want in the village stores. But their phones do not work. They cannot find other people.
So there they are, in the Golden Age of Ovid and Hesiod turned nightmare, when all they want is their Iron Age back. They think they are dead. Joyce’s version of the myth, and allusions to the Golden Age, is fascinating.
The question of what to do with their time was a pressing one. It seemed to both of them that they had landed the ultimate dream of affluence, one that they weren’t sure they wanted…. What’s more, they didn’t ever have to work to maintain this dizzy standard of affluence. Death had delivered to them an idle abundance.
Joyce writes not just about snow, but about the nature of silence. What does silence mean? Under a clump of trees in the snow, the couple hears true silence. “The freezing of all sound.” There is only real silence in death.
It is Zen-ish.
Then Zoe hears the snow singing to her.
Zoe is terrified of separation from Jake. Every time he goes out of the hotel without her, she is frightened. She fears there will be another avalanche.
I couldn’t help but cry over Zoe’s nightmare of separation. Don’t mistake me: I am well beyond the age of romance. I am gray-haired, sensible, and see love from an older, more experienced point of view. But as a young woman, deeply in love as only women can be who put their relationships ahead of careers, I had a recurring dream in which the detonation of a nuclear bomb separated me from my husband.
And then there was an actual slight earthquake. I was teaching Latin when the rumbling began, and I thought it was a nuclear power accident. (Perhaps it’s my generation: I have always been terrified of nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs.) And I couldn’t leave, my duty was obviously to my students, and I had to stay calm.
Not a very dramatic incident, but always the fear of separation.
This is a deeply romantic novel. Every word of it is for a reason. If you know what to look for, which you don’t until the end, there is much foreshadowing, even in the imagery. This is a classic.
Graham Joyce is an amazing writer. He has won the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award five times. His novels “cross over” from literary fiction to science fiction to fantasy, and I am pretty sure this one was shelved in the literature section. The Guardian calls his work “dark fantasy.”
He grew up in a mining village, failed his “eleven-plus,” and got a degree in education in Derby, and eventually a master’s in English and American Literature at Leicester University. He wrote his first book, Dreamside, during a year on Lesbos and in Crete with his wife.
Is he the only writer in the UK who didn’t graduate from Oxford or Cambridge? Sometimes it seems that way!
You can read all about him at his website: http://www.grahamjoyce.co.uk/
I also recently read his stunning new novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which, if possible, is even better than this one. His books are overwhelming, so I will write about it another time.
I find it interesting that, after years of reading women’s literature, I have added two male writers, Joyce and Michael Chabon, to my canon.
Have I finally moved beyond gender?
More on that later!