This slender volume was an emergency read… I was out of books and my husband had picked up two at the library. He was the library-goer, so he got first pick, and I ended up with The Silent Land by Graham Joyce.
How often do I know absolutely nothing about a book I open? Hardly ever. Although I avoid reading the description on the inside of the book jacket, I usually know the author’s previous works, or have seen the blurbs on the cover, or even read an ad or review. In this case, all I knew was that the jacket was hard to figure out and the book was on the smallish side. Oh, and it was fiction.
So it was with a sense of some wonder that I began the book. Each sentence was lyrical, but no longer than necessary. The pace was unhurried. A married couple (Zoe and Jake) are on their 10th wedding anniversary ski trip. They head out in the quiet early morning to ski the pristine slopes. Their joy and comfort with each other and with the day is shattered by an avalanche. We stay with Zoe, frozen upside down, unable to see, as she moves her fingers infinitesimally slowly. She finally frees herself. By some miracle, Jake is also alive.
But when the couple make it back to the lodge, it is empty, devoid of life. Not surprisingly, they believe it has been evacuated. When they venture out, the lack of tracks in the snow makes it clear that there is no one else moving about. They can leave the lodge, but their world is very circumscribed. Because no matter what or how they try to leave, they keep circling back, returning to the same hotel as if caught on a Mobius strip.
And soon other strange things become apparent. The raw meat and uncooked vegetables left out on the kitchen counter are still fresh and glistening, days later. Lit candles do not seem to burn down, nor does the fireplace need replenishing.
Even more unusual is that Zoe and Jake seem to need to focus, to remember, to even describe a memory, in order to experience the present. Wine has no taste until they describe the taste of previously-enjoyed wine. There’s no need to eat, or pee, or wear clothes… unless they remind themselves of hunger, of elimination, of cold.
Have they fallen, somehow, out of time? And why does Zoe see and hear things that Jake does not? Why does her phone ring? And how is it that Jake’s dog Sadie – whom he buried, with tears, many years ago – is here with them? While Zoe and Jake begin to suspect that they were killed in the avalanche and that this is some bizarre kind of limbo, Zoe holds a secret she cannot bear to give up, even as it seems she is losing Jake.
I won’t spoil the book for you – I’ve already said too much already – but Joyce certainly kept me turning the pages. A very literary fantasy, the story is slight but compellingly told and engaging. The end, while not shocking, is in keeping with the rest of the book: somewhat mysterious and sad, but ultimately optimistic and heart-warming.
Post The Silent Land, a Google search reveals that Graham Joyce has written other books for adults and children, and is a winner of the O. Henry Award. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his work.