Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Book Review: The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

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"A young couple are caught in an avalanche during a ski-ing holiday in the French Alps. They struggle back to the village and find it deserted. As the days go by they wait for rescue, then try to leave. But each time they find themselves back in the village. And, increasingly, they are plagued by visions and dreams and the realisation that perhaps no-one could have survived the avalanche..."


Years ago, Jake and Zoe met on the piste of a ski resort. For them, it was love at first snow, a holiday romance that outlasted the holiday, but not the romance; for fate, however, their meeting was but the first link in a great chain which, a decade later, leads the young couple back to the Alps - and into the arms of calamity. At the crack of dawn on the second day of their return trip, Jake and Zoe get "up early to beat the holiday-making hordes for this first run of the morning. Because this - the tranquility, the silence, the undisturbed powder and the eerie feeling of proximity to an eagle's flight - was what it was all about." In a fit of unadulterated pleasure, Jake whoops at the mountain, and the mountain roars back, a "great mass of smoke and snow" on its breath: an avalanche.

The couple have little time to prepare for its calamitous embrace - nor, indeed, do we (readers, meet the deep end). The snow crashes down on us as it does Jake and Zoe, tearing the terrified young lovers from one another and us, momentarily, from them. It seems Zoe's thought that "she could die in that place, and happily," is to be put to the test, for when we come to with her, she is alone, upside down, and trapped under tonnes of hard-packed powder. Her panic-stricken struggle to survive is one of the most unnerving sequences in genre literature in recent memory - an almost unbearably tense exercise in the buried alive mode of claustrophobic horror - but for all her efforts, she cannot overcome nature; it's no contest. Zoe feels "a terrible surrender" pass over her as her consciousness begins to shut down. It's a truly terrible moment.

And then, "like light through a stained-glass window in a cathedral," Jake's voice penetrates the powder, awakening his lover from her deathly slumber. In short order, he digs her out, they dust themselves off and start down the very mountain which has so nearly meant the end of them both. They encounter no-one, curiously - not even a search and rescue team - but of course the slopes would have been cleared, wouldn't they? Curiouser, however, is that on returning to their luxurious hotel, they find it empty. It must have been evacuated, they reason. Along with the whole of the rest of the town, evidently: there's not a soul about in all Saint-Bernard-en-Haut. Jake and Zoe have the whole place to themselves.

Reading that back, it feels a little like I'm giving the game away, but that's not the case at all. As a matter of fact, the blurb is more of a spoiler - and there's a great deal more to the latest Graham Joyce than even that nutshell synopsis makes plain. The avalanche, the rescue and the revelation of the resort's profound emptiness are all said and done within the first chapter and a half. The Silent Land is a short novel, to be sure, without the trimmings of a supporting cast or needless narrative red-herrings, but it's a mouth-watering roast of a story in itself, swaddled in diversionary carrots and tatties or not.

At the eye of this particular storm, Joyce gives us Jake and Zoe. An uncomplicated pair of lovers in love; smart, young and energetic. Theirs are the only voices you will hear in The Silent Land, and they're such fantastic characters you won't mind for a moment. Some might say there's not a lot to them, but there doesn't need to be. Jake is practical and protective, though Zoe's no pushover: she's a strong-willed optimist, hardly in need of coddling (though not always averse to it). They complement one another wonderfully, this couple. Their adorably explicit banter reveals them for the tender morsels they are in the unfathomable space they have been stranded in; together, in spite of the encroaching icy cold of the desolate landscape they haunt, Jake and Zoe bring to The Silent Land all the warmth of a well-stoked fire.

It's tough to discuss much of The Silent Land without outright ruining it, and I won't go down that road for the sake of a few more paragraphs. Suffice it to say that we have here one of the very best, and certainly the most affecting novel of Graham Joyce's storied career. It moves along at the perfect pace: even as things become increasingly desperate for Jake and Zoe, the narrative doesn't miss a beat. Joyce's prose has a hazy, unhurried quality akin to a dream - or a nightmare - that delivers you whole cloth into the stark wintertime world of his latest and potentially greatest.

Needless to say, Saint-Bernard-en-Haut proves a tremendously affecting place to spend some time. For myself, I was near enough to tears as I turned the last page of The Silent Land - only the hardest of hearts can hope, I think, to remain unmoved by its pitch-perfect denouement. Lively, warm and honest, the company for the duration of your stay couldn't be better either: the underlying love story between Jake and Zoe is touching and brilliantly bittersweet. In the end, The Silent Land is an emotional tour-de-force, slight in stature at just over 200 pages in my proof copy, yet utterly remarkable in its raw power.


The Silent Land
by Graham Joyce
November 2010, Gollancz

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  1. Graham Joyce is one of my favorite authors, a position he gained a toehold with when I read Memoirs of a Master Forger and outright stole as I continued on reading a mini-marathon of his books. The Silent Land is one of my most anticipated books this year and for good reason... Joyce, above all, excels with this sort of story.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading this now.

  3. Oh, and well you should, Lee. Hell of a thing. And there's another along the same lines just out: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. If this does it for you, that surely will too.

  4. Hi Niall,

    I've now read it and am rather disppointed. It's not Joyce at his best, which is very good indeed. A lot of the prose is less than fresh, the metaphors especially, and I wish the whole were a lot less hackneyed.

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