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Onyx reviews: The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

There is always an element of ambiguity in Graham Joyce's novels. Every time something surreal or supernatural seems to occur, he offers an alternate, rational explanation for the event and leaves it up to the reader to decide what to believe. Sometimes his characters are delusional or drugged or drunk. It's all a matter of perception. And yet there's usually one thing, one tiny little element, that defies all rational explanation.

Joyce's non-YA books are of two general types: the ones set in the UK, and the ones set in exotic locales like Greece, Israel or France. In the non-UK books, the focus is often on a couple in some type of emotional distress, and The Silent Land fits the model exactly. Zoe and Jake are very much in love, and their ski vacation in the Pyrenees, where they first met, is a celebration of a mostly happy ten-year relationship. However, there is something they need to discuss, even if Jake doesn't know it yet.

Before they get the chance to have their heart-to-heart, fate intervenes in the form of an avalanche when they are on the slopes on the second morning of their vacation before the holiday-making hordes arrive. Joyce's description of this incident is harrowing and chilling and visceral. Zoe's instincts kick in: she positions her arms to create a pocket of air around her when she ends up buried head first in the snow. Jake manages to "swim" to safety and cling to a tree while the snow surges past, then pulls her free just as she was about to give up hope of being rescued. They are shaken but exhilarated. They defied death.

When they return to their resort hotel, they discover it is abandoned. So is the surrounding village. Phones don't work, the TV shows snow on every channel, and the internet is down. The only logical explanation is that everyone was evacuated because of the threat of a larger avalanche, the kind that could conceivably sweep away buildings. If it occurs to them to think that the evacuation was uncharacteristically speedy and efficient, they don't share their suspicions. They're caught up in a blizzard, so they decide to stay put until conditions clear.

The strangeness increases. Meat and vegetables left out in the kitchen are as fresh the next day as when they came out of cold storage. Candles burn, but they don't get shorter, and the wood in the fireplace is never consumed, even though it gives off heat. The empty hotel is reminiscent of the Overlook from The Shining, though not quite as menacing—at first. When their repeated attempts to leave the village, whether by car or on skis, are thwarted or lead them back where they started, Jake suggests the unthinkable, a conclusion that people familiar with The Twilight Zone will probably have arrived at ahead of him. 

It's not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination, but readers of Graham Joyce's work know to expect the unexpected, and that even a familiar trope will be put to good and different use in his hands. Here is, perhaps, the ultimate strain on a relationship, and what follows their epiphany is an exploration of how they deal with it. Zoe is still keeping a secret from Jake, and it seems more important now than ever. They bicker and reveal marital secrets and disagree about what to do next, but they also amuse themselves by dining like royalty, making love like newlyweds, skiing like pros, and drinking the best wine from the cellar. However, they discover that they need to remind each other what something tastes like or feels like before they're able to experience it. This odd development forces them to remember some of the best moments from their relationship.

This situation cannot last forever, and Joyce wisely doesn't spend hundreds of pages attempting to sustain it. An element of dark foreboding enters the novel. Strange voices on cell phones that don't otherwise  work. Hallucinations, strange dreams and delusions. Time dilation. Phantom visitations, including the inexplicable appearance of Jake's long-dead dog. Failing memories. Random power cuts of increasing duration. The sense that this idyllic existence is beginning to collapse around them.

The book's epigram (omitted in the US galley) is the poem Remembrance by Christina Rossetti, which also gives The Silent Land its title. The poignant verse also forms something of a roadmap for the book. The Silent Land explores loss (explicitly through the respective stories of Zoe and Jake's fathers' deaths, and more subtly in other ways), but it is also a touching love story. Jake and Zoe are never idealized: they are fully realized and believable and likable. The novel is an excellent introduction to Graham Joyce for readers who aren't familiar with his previous books, and a fine addition to his catalog of intelligent, touching, perceptive novels. 

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