Reviewed by Victoria
Illness and the various challenges it poses have become hot topics in contemporary fiction. Cancer narratives abound in fiction and non-fiction, as do stories of mental and emotional breakdown. We are fascinated not just by the story of a liminal experience, one situated on the outer reaches of what we think of as normal, but also by the possibilities of both breakdown and cure. Is it true that by understanding why something has happened, we can figure out how to move forward towards health and better living? Sara Marshall-Balls’ debut novel takes an unusual topic as its central concern: selective mutism. But the power of silence makes an intriguing study in the chatty confines of a narrative.
Lily Emmett has suffered from selective mutism since she was a child and even now, a grown woman in her 40s with a career and a man who loves her, she struggles to find words. Her partner, Richard, accepts her as she is and is reluctant to push her towards the expression of anything that might make her worse. Instead, he gives her words, telling her stories at night before she sleeps that both calm and enchant her. Her sister, Connie, has less patience, however. For Lily’s mutism dates from a trauma that involved both of the sisters and their mother. Their friend, Billy, died in a way that cast doubt over their innocence and this shadow of old, unresolved scandal has followed them throughout their school careers. We do not know what happened to Billy or how the girls were involved, but we know it must have been terrible because Lily’s silence has its own form of eloquence.
When the novel opens, Lily and Connie’s mother has just died and they are returning to the house they lived in as children. Both find it haunted by scarcely tolerable ghosts. Their mother’s death is the catalyst for a split narrative, one spool of story unwinding from that crucial misunderstood moment in the past when Billy died, and one spool unwinding from the present into the future as the sisters find themselves both released and provoked by their mother’s death into a last attempt to come to terms with the past.
I found I was very curious to track the paths of my sympathy over the course of this novel. We are invited to assume that Lily’s silence is an indication of greater damage; Connie, who manages to carry on as normal, with no psychosomatic symptoms, has supposedly come off more lightly. Lily is taken away to her grandparents with little explanation and then put in a boarding school for troubled children that seems ostensibly benign. Connie, meanwhile, is stuck between parents who are arguing bitterly, her mother in particular is depressed, neglectful and distant, and at school she is bullied because of her association with the suspicious death. You can’t help but feel for Connie, who is forced to assume the greater burden of responsibility and whose life has clearly been ruined. It’s not that Lily gets off without further harm – in the boarding school she witnesses the attempted suicide of a friend, which is enough to have her hooked out of the school and returned to her grandparents. But in the family fallout, Lily is the one who becomes the centre of concern, the one who is considered delicate and frail and who receives what protection there is to be had.
In the present day, this scenario continues. Connie is married to a doctor and has two young boys. She still feels excessively protective of her sister and responsible for her wellbeing, even when her own marriage is hitting the rocks. When Richard loses his job and Lily’s fugue states worsen to the extent that her academic employers grant her a sabbatical, Richard decides they should move into the empty parental home. Partly this is a decision made from financial necessity, but it is also a rather rough and random stab at making Lily face up to the trauma of her past. Maybe it will provoke some kind of crisis that will break her silence, freeing her from the hostage situation in which she seems caught.
What this story shows is the strange, passive power of silence. It has an invincibility that rebounds on the bystanders. Lily can only live a fraction of an existence; the rest of it must be carried by those who love her. As a study of the way that what doesn’t kill you makes you sabotage yourself and the lives of those you love, this is a novel that asks some intriguing questions.
It isn’t a perfect novel, though. It’s overlong and could lose a hundred pages to become a much tauter, tighter work of fiction. Having made the reader wait so long for an explanation of what happened to Billy, I wasn’t sure that the truth was sufficient for the weight of storytelling and of psychical damage that precedes it. That seems to be a common problem of the secret-based story at the moment, however. But it is a fine and moving study of family dysfunction, and a very intriguing portrait of an unusual response to trauma. It certainly makes you consider the power of words to keep us alive, engaged and healthy, and that’s a significant achievement.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read an article by Sara Marshall-Ball about the inspiration behind her novel here.
Sara Marshall-Ball, Hush (Myriad Editions: London, 2015). 978-1908434586, 320 pp., paperback.
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