By Judith Wilson
This book arrived with impeccable timing: I was tired of unseasonably warm UK temperatures and longing for a December frost. From its snowy jacket design to exquisite descriptions of the Alaskan tundra, The Quality of Silence instantly transported me into a completely alien landscape with jagged sensory appeal; one can’t fail to read Rosamund Lupton’s third novel without feeling chilly, literally and metaphorically. I came to this author’s work with no preconceptions, though I’d heard of her bestselling debut, Sister (2010), and the follow-up, Afterwards (2011), which went straight into The Sunday Times bestseller lists.
The novel has an intriguing premise: mother and ‘resting’ astrophysicist Yasmin and her 10-year-old daughter have arrived in Alaska to meet Ruby’s father. He’s been on location, working as a wildlife film maker. No sooner have they touched down at Fairbanks Airport, than police tell Yasmin there’s been a catastrophic fire at Matt’s village; everyone has perished, and only his wedding ring remains. But headstrong Yasmin is unwilling to believe facts, even when Captain Graying, state trooper in charge of the search, sympathetically repeats the evidence. Yasmin reasons Matt had called her only the day before; perhaps he’d missed his connecting plane or bad weather set in? Determined to find him, she sets out by road with Ruby into the frozen wasteland. And that’s only the beginning …
The Quality of Silence is billed as a thriller and therefore I was expecting twists in the plot and a handful of apparent baddies: Silesian Stennet, the environmentalist they meet at the airport, is particularly creepy. The suspense is plentiful and the book is certainly a page-turner; it’s very obvious that Rosamund Lupton was originally a screen writer. As we get deeper into the Alaskan wilderness, Yasmin and Ruby grapple with danger; their driver falls ill, and when they go it alone, the roads become precipitous, there’s an unidentified lorry following them, and who is sending anonymous emails featuring savagely killed wildlife? Only the voice of the friendly trucker, Coby, can reassure Yasmin. But the further they drive from civilization, the closer we feel the pair getting to an unspoken danger, creating a claustrophobic tension. Their vulnerability is ramped up by the savagely cold conditions and Ruby’s profound deafness.
Neatly, the narrative switches between Ruby’s cheery narration and Yasmin’s third person perspective. Occasionally I found the switch from one to the other within chapters jarred and a little confusing; but it’s a clever device to deliver a contrasting adult and child’s viewpoint. Subtly, Lupton also weaves in the history of Yasmin and Matt’s relationship: from meeting at university to her more pressing reason for visiting now, fearing Matt is straying with a native Inupiaq woman. We find out more about family tensions with Ruby, too: deaf since birth, how should she best communicate with the world? Will speaking (as Yasmin wants) or sign-language and social media (which Ruby prefers) give her a more powerful voice as she matures?
Lupton has realized the frozen landscapes of Alaska with perfect clarity: she’s clearly done her research, and as well as poetic descriptions of the blanket darkness and deep-freeze cold, she’s focused on the practicalities of surviving -20 temperatures: we know what gear Yasmin and Ruby must wear, and why. But for me, the savagery of the weather also posed an awkward question that niggled: why would a mother take a 10-year-old child into such dangerous conditions, however much she wants to trace her husband? As the book progresses, we realize The Quality of Silence also has an ecological message: the Inupiaq people who have so welcomed Matt are up against the darker forces of international fracking, and at the climax, Yasmin becomes entangled in this struggle, too. In fact, the book covers multiple themes – deafness, love, fracking, nature, astrophysics, family relationships – and at times I felt it was in danger of tripping over its own research and it’s very careful ‘message’.
Did I fall in love with the characters? I found it harder to warm to Yasmin precisely because she puts her daughter in danger, but Ruby’s cheerful narration is engaging; and despite her childlike naivety, she is surprisingly astute when it comes to sniffing out the bad guys. Ultimately, her desire to communicate with the world through social media proves their salvation. And did I think The Quality of Silence was a good read? Yes, and it was truly gripping at times, but it left me with some unanswered questions and a sense that the plot wasn’t 100% watertight. On the other hand, I’m now intrigued to find out more about Alaska, and those pressing fracking issues we’d all prefer to ignore. And if a novel can open a reader’s eyes to explore a new and highly topical subject, surely it has effectively done its job?
Judith can be found on Twitter as @judithwrites
Rosamund Lupton, The Quality of Silence (Piatkus, 2015). 978-0-34940815-6, 416 pp., paperback.
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