Filler content with a silent land

A review that appeared in Interzone #237:-

THE SILENT LAND

Graham Joyce

Gollancz, 256pp, £7.99 pb

Jake and Zoe are holidaying at the ski resort of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut in the French Alps, and decide to start their day with an early morning session before everyone else hits the piste.  It’s a bad decision, as the couple are caught in an avalanche, with Zoe buried in snow and Jake having to dig her out. Lucky to be alive, they slowly make their way back to civilisation, only to find that not only is their hotel empty but so is the entire village, with none of the phone lines working. The only logical conclusion to be reached is that a more significant avalanche is pending and the village has been evacuated, but it’s a view that becomes increasingly impossible to maintain as their every effort to leave Saint-Bernard-en-Haut is thwarted. The longer they remain trapped in the village the more they see to suggest that not everything is right with this scenario – candles don’t burn down as they should, meat doesn’t go off.

The novel comes in three distinct stages. The first is entirely realistic in tone and intent, the tale of a couple on holiday who get caught up in a natural disaster. Joyce uses this to embed his tale in our world, to fill in some of the characters’ back story (an ongoing process throughout the novel, and Joyce cannily doesn’t reveal all that he knows about his fictional creations, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and bond more surely).  Zoe, the main pov character, and Jake are an engaging couple, two people still deeply in love and desiring each other, obviously so, but at the same time it’s a relationship that has seen bad times, with no go areas and secrets buried deep, jealousy and resentment as part of the mix. It’s idyllic, but not unrealistically ideal, a relationship of the kind that many of us will recognise and be able to identify with.

In the second stage, while the relationship remains realistic the setting becomes increasingly outré, with the characters’ growing realisation that they may have died in the avalanche and become stranded on another plane of existence. What matters here is not so much where they have landed up as how they respond to their situation. They can ski all day, have sex in every room of the hotel including the lift, drink expensive champagne without worrying if they can afford it. In many ways they have been gifted a second honeymoon, one that need never end, or at least this is how it first appears, but there is a snake in this Eden and eventually it reveals itself. The meat begins to rot, the candles burn down, the power flickers on and off, while minatory figures surround the hotel, Joyce effortlessly imbuing his dreamlike narrative with tension and a genuine sense of menace.

And so we come to the final section, with the revelation of the couples’ true situation, something I believe most readers will figure out long before Zoe and Jake, but any obviousness of the plot is an irrelevance by this stage, the story having gained an emotional force and momentum every bit as unstoppable as the avalanche that is the book’s catalyst. As I read the final pages tears filled my eyes, and it didn’t matter a jot that I was aware of how cleverly Joyce had manipulated my emotions, knowing exactly which heartstrings to tug on. The joy of The Silent Land is in the telling, the elegant prose that never sets a foot wrong, the way in which the author pulls it all together at the end, with incidental details becoming significant, and the authenticity of the emotions that he brings to the story. It’s a heartrendingly sad book, but one that is ultimately uplifting and among the very best of what I’ve read this year.

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