Rosamund Lupton, author of two bestselling novels Sister and Afterwards, is back with her new, (literally) chilling novel The Quality of Silence, which is set against the backdrop of a dark, cold and eerie silence in the vast, uninhabited and alien landscape of northern Alaska.
Ten-year old Ruby is – in many ways – not unlike other girls her age. Bright, curious and surprisingly techno-savvy, she has a large following on twitter, and is devising her own blog. What sets Ruby apart is that she is deaf, and the words she types on twitter are more than the search for a social network; they are Ruby’s way of exploration, of trying to explain who she is, living in the silence that surrounds her: “Anxiety: Looks like a chessboard with the squares quickly moving about; feels sweaty and shivery; tastes like prickly ice-cream.”
Accompanied by her laptop, Ruby and her mother Yasmin arrive in Alaska to spend Christmas with Matt, Ruby’s father who is working in a remote indigenous community filming a documentary. Ruby is excited at the prospect of seeing her father, while Yasmin has far more conflicted feelings, which she is trying to hide from her daughter. When they are met by the police instead of Matt, and told that there the whole village he was staying in has burned down in a freak-accident without any survivors, Yasmin and Ruby set out on their own into the snow covered darkness to find him, not realising that there is someone following their every move.
The Quality of Silence is the kind of novel where you will feel compelled to rush on, to find out what happens; but also the kind of novel where you have to put the book down at fair intervals, just to reassure yourself that you, at least, if not the characters of the novel, can get out of the overwhelmingly hostile and freezing landscape. It is the kind of novel where the myriad of themes and connections creep up on you slowly, and engage you for a long time after you have put the book down – themes about greed and violence, about the unsustainability of our Western lifestyle at the expense of indigenous people and fragile landscapes and ecosystems; themes about language and making yourself heard – whether it is through words, hand gestures or images; and finally themes about love and human connection, and how our “everyday” lives, behaviours and assumptions can threaten both.
The modern technologies of twitter, email and portable networks stand in stark contrast to the landscape of the novel, where so little infrastructure exists, and where the people of the land live in much the same way they have always – through hunting and the traditional wisdom that has kept them surviving the long, harsh winters in a place that through foreign eyes looks desolate and cruel, but which underneath teems with beauty and life. It is the enthrallment with this beauty that Ruby’s father Matt discovers, and which attracts him to the remote village of Anaktaue, an indigenous community of the Inupiaq.
What Ruby knows about Alaska is that it’s really cold and “super quiet”, and that “your tears can freeze.” Ironically, it is the voice of Ruby – told in a compellingly executed first person – which holds this novel together. In contrast to the third person voice of Ruby’s mother Yasmin, which falls somewhat flat, Ruby and her insights into life make her seem a lot older than ten years, and her observations give this novel its chilling edge, right until the final lines of the book.