There is something both enticing and terrifying about the way Rosamond Lupton’s thriller “The Quality of Silence” draws you ever northward into the bleak frozen wasteland of northern Alaska. It’s a place of beauty where the starry night sky is startlingly clear and the Aurora Borealis gives fantastic light shows, but there are also deadly cold temperatures and snow storms that obliterate the landscape. A mother and daughter journey into the arctic to search for the father who is a wildlife photographer that has gone missing. The incredibly remote village of Anaktue where he’s been based has been completely destroyed in a mysterious explosion and all of its inhabitants are found dead. The mother, Yasmin, who is an English astrophysicist received a clue that her husband is still living. Because the authorities have given up the search, she takes on the perilous task of finding him herself. Her daughter Ruby is deaf and Yasmin thinks it’s too dangerous to leave her with anyone she meets along the way. So they drive as far north as humanly possible into a snowy wilderness while being pursued by a mysterious threatening individual. This is a story which pulled me in with sympathetic characters I felt increasingly anxious for as their rescue mission became bone-chillingly dangerous.
Needless to say, deafness is a terrible handicap - especially for a ten year old girl. Ruby has trouble socially because her mother insisted she enrol in a school with hearing children rather than be segregated into a special school. She must negotiate through a world designed for those who can hear and she must tolerate the way most people treat her differently – as someone to be ignored or pitied or talked down to. One of the most beautiful moments in the book is when Ruby strikes up a friendship with a kind truck driver named Adeeb who agrees to take her and Yasmin as far north as he can. The casual conversation they have about music draws Ruby into the kind of normality she’s so often excluded from because she’s labelled as different. Through this friendship, the special bond she has with her parents and from reading about Ruby’s own perspective we’re able to understand some of the extraordinary qualities she possesses. The silence she lives within gives her advantages and special knowledge the hearing world never even considers. Embedded within the very title of this novel is the understanding that deafness does not simply mean disability.
I’ve written before about how tricky it is for an author to get a child’s voice right. See my review of Clair Cameron’s “The Bear” from last year. Lupton takes the best of both worlds in her novel by alternating her narrative between Ruby’s child voice and a more straight-forward omniscient narrator. This has a slightly jarring effect at first because it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any one voice. After some time it becomes more natural as scenes transition between the two perspectives giving both an inward and outward understanding of the action. Ruby’s voice veers dangerously close at times to a cloying sweetness, yet her perspective can also be wonderfully refreshing. Her thoughts on the division between her everyday and online identity feel especially pertinent for the newer generation: “It’s like there’s two worlds, the typed one, (like emails and Facebook and Twitter and bloggering) and then the ‘real’ one. So there are two me’s. And I’d like the real world to be the typed one because that’s where I can properly be me.” Ruby creates a unique voice for her Twitter profile to express the way words have a synaesthesia-like effect of creating sensations within her. It allows her an honesty and poetic beauty she cannot convey in her physical reality. These complexities make her a compelling and highly-endearing character.
The novel becomes effectively disjointed and surreal the further the pair travel into the snow and emptiness. It's as if their identities becomes stripped down alongside the frosty landscape. This had a hypnotic effect upon me as the atmospheric descriptions take on an increasingly surreal quality to coincide with the characters' mounting desperation and physical strain: "In our headlights there's huge sheets of snow, like shape-shifting ghosts haunting the road." Memories intrude upon the characters' consciousness so that the physical desolation of the landscape comes to represent feelings of aloneness in the world. The fight for survival is also one where the characters must solidify their connection to each other. Overlaying the chase that makes up the bulk of this story is a message about the environment. “The Quality of Silence” is a gripping, mesmerising read.