History and myth have often focused on men: Sisyphus, Lazarus, Herod, Pilate, Midas, Faust, Freud… But what of their wives? Who were they and what did they think of their men?
These women are brought to life in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems. The wives of the men mentioned above, female figures like Salomé, Circe, Eurydice, Delilah and Medusa, finally have a voice. She also reimagines King Kong and the Kray Twins as women. The result is delightful.
The collection starts with Little Red-Cap, a take on Little Red Riding Hood, where the girl is at “childhood’s edge” when she sees the wolf, “a paperback in his hairy paw,/red wine staining his bearded jaw. … I made quite sure he spotted me, / sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink”. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for the wolf.
I love reworkings of well-known tales, and this collection delivers. The women are, on the whole, unimpressed with their men. Mrs. Midas watches with a mixture of fascination and horror at the way everything her husband touches turns into gold.
“He tried to light a cigarette. I gazed, entranced, as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least, I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.”
Mrs. Aesop is bored to distraction with Aesop’s fables. Mrs. Sisyphus is a woman married to a workaholic husband who spends all his time and energy in rolling a boulder up the hill, just to have it roll back down. She would rather he spent more time with her, but he can’t give up his “work”.
Orpheus and Eurydice aren’t quite the happy couple they’re made out to be in myth. Eurydice is happy to be dead and in the Underworld, away from Orpheus:
“It was a place where language stopped, a black full stop, a black hole where words had to come to an end. … the one place you’d think a girl would be safe from the kind of man who follows her around writing poems”
But to her dismay, Orpheus turns up in the Underworld and persuades the gods to let him take her back. They agree, provided he doesn’t turn around to look at her even once on his way out. But Eurydice flatters him into turning around. His promise to the gods broken, she is free to disappear back into the shadows.
The Kray Twins, reimagined as women, are gangsters like the real Kray Twins (who ran organized crime in London in the 50s and 60s), but the female Twins avenge women who have been ill-treated by their men.
And finally, Mrs Darwin: “Went to the Zoo. / I said to Him – / Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.”
This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection, turning the legends about men on their heads. The title is a reference to the phrase “the world and his wife”, which denies women the right to be part of the world. Duffy has put them back on the centre of the stage, where they should be.
The book begins in Ireland in the 1940s: The Catholic Church is all-powerful, and anything outside the norm is not only frowned upon but punished. For example, having a child outside marriage, as Catherine Goggin, a pregnant teenager in an Irish village finds out. She is exposed by the priest and banished from the village. (It turns out later that the priest himself had fathered children out of wedlock.)
Catherine heads for Dublin where she moves in with Seàn and Jack. It takes Catherine a while to realize that they were a gay couple. Being gay in 1940s Ireland was a crime, so the two men were taking a huge risk in living together. When Seàn’s father finds them, it all goes horribly wrong.
Catherine gives her child, Cyril, up for adoption. Charles and Maude Avery, a middle-class couple, raise him. Although Cyril does not have an unhappy childhood, it isn’t one filled with love. Maude is a writer and an eccentric. Charles makes it clear that Cyril is not a real Avery, who is tolerated rather than loved.
Then at 10 years old, he meets Julian, a boy his own age, and is smitten. Already at that age, Cyril realizes that he is different from the others, and it was not something that would be accepted. “Even at that tender age I knew that there was something about me that was different and that it would be impossible ever to put right.” The two boys become friends, but Julian does not suspect that his friend is in love with him. As a gay man in an Ireland where it is still a crime, Cyril has to live a double life, hiding his real self under a mask.
The book follows Cyril as he grows up and joins the civil service. He often eats in the parliament’s cafeteria, where Catherine Goggin rules the roost. Mother and son take a liking to each other without knowing about the very real bond between them.
The book follows Cyril as he eventually leaves Ireland for Amsterdam, where he finds love with a Danish doctor, Bastiaan, and is finally able to live openly as a gay man. The couple move to New York in the 1980s. It may have been a more open time, but prejudice hasn’t exactly disappeared. AIDS, commonly known as a “gay disease”, is spreading and gay men are held responsible.
Cyril’s story comes full circle, as he returns to Ireland. It is now the 2000s, and Ireland is a very different place.
Through the life of Cyril from his childhood to old age, John Boyne gives us a sense of what it means to be gay and how things have changed—or not—over the decades. It is unimaginable how difficult it was—and still is in some parts of the world—just to be open about who you are.
While Cyril is no saint, which makes him more interesting, Bastiaan is a little too good to be true. But the characters who really come alive here are the women, especially Catherine, who is feisty, strong and funny. My one grip with it is that the book is full of coincidences worthy of a Bollywood film (or Shakespeare?): people meet up against all odds, which drives the story but does require a suspension of disbelief. But on the whole, it is a moving and redemptive story.
Note: The title is from something that the political theorist Hannah Arendt is supposed to have said about the poet W.H. Auden: “life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face”.
Celestial Objects is a novel by Omani writer Jokha Alharthi that won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. This makes it unusual—there aren’t a lot of books by Omani writers translated into English, and this is the first novel written originally in Arabic to win the prize.
The novel tells the story of a family the village of al-Awafi, and through their lives, shows the shifts in attitudes and changes taking place in Oman over three generations. Azzan and Salima have three daughters: Mayya, constantly bent over her sewing machine, bookish Asma and beautiful Khawla. When the book starts, Mayya has just been told she is getting married to Abdullah, a businessman. She is in love with her cousin and doesn’t want to marry Abdullah, but doesn’t feel she has a choice.
Abdullah falls in love with Mayya when he sees her absorbed in her sewing. Like her, he is bound by family—he has a violent father who decides the direction Abdallah’s life will take. Abdullah takes care of his father, but he is also afraid of him, a fear that is so deeply ingrained that it becomes a part of who he is. It is not only the women who are oppressed. Abdullah is caught between wanting to break free and needing to do his duty by his father.
The other two sisters have a bit more of a say in their marriages. Asma agrees to marry Khalid, who has been chosen for her, after giving it some thought. She makes the decision with her head, thinking that Khalid will support her in finishing her studies, which he does. Khawla refuses Khalid’s brother, saying she is promised to her cousin, a childhood sweetheart. She waits for him to return from Canada, and he turns out to be a wastrel but she marries him anyway.
It was customary for families to own slaves, some of whom worked in the house as domestic help, like Zarifa, owned by Abdullah’s father. She is also his mistress and a surrogate mother to Abdullah. After Abdullah’s mother disappears when he is very young, Zarifa raises him, and she is the one person he is close to.
When slavery is abolished in 1970, Zarifa’s son strikes out for himself, much to his mother’s dismay. He tries to explain to her that no one can own them anymore, that they are free to do as they please, but she will not leave her old master.
This is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Omanis, and the changes that happened over the years. Mayya names her daughter London in spite of opposition from everyone, including Abdallah. It was as if she focused her yearning for other places, for a wider world on her daughter; it was a promise to her child that she will have the opportunities that Mayya never had. And by the time London grows up, things have changed, and she does have more freedom than her mother had.
The book moves back and forth between first-person and third-person narrative. The only character who tells his own story is Abdullah. You see the marriage from his point of view and follow his search for the truth about what really happened to his mother. All the other chapters focus on a particular character in turn. Time is also flexible, moving between the past, present and future, all sometimes with the same chapter. It’s not a device often used and has the effect of a multi-faceted piece, where you get to see the whole picture at once.
I have been fascinated by Gauhar Jaan’s life ever since I came to know about her. I bought this hard-bound book in the bookshop A A Hussian some years ago but it sat on my shelves for a long time. I finally read it, and am so glad I did because it gave me a peek into not only her amazing life but also into the journey of classical Hindustani music and musicians of the time.
Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930) was a singer and dancer from Kolkata, and one of the first Indian voices to have been recorded on 78 rpm gramophone records in 1902. The initial days of this process was painstaking and a musician’s worst nightmare. “The singer had to crane his or her neck into a narrow horn fixed on the wall and literally scream as loud as possible. The volume of the voice would ensure that the needle rotated and cut the grooves on the disc”. Added to this, a recording agent forcefully held the head of the singer in place because they were used to shaking their heads and gesticulating while singing (as they still do)!
The other interesting thing about the recordings was that the singer announced her name at the end of the recording since the wax masters of the records were sent to Hanover where the records were made, and the technicians there would not know who the singer was. Therefore, at the end of all her recordings, Gauhar Jaan says in a shrill, child-like and playful voice, “My name is Gauhar Jaan”! This, justifiably, is the title of the book.
Gauhar Jaan’s story has been pieced together by Vikram Sampath after painstaking research, and has a lot of details. She was born Eileen Angelina Yeoward, an Armenian Christian who converted to Islam when her mother married a Muslim gentleman. She was a naturally gifted singer, was very popular and made nearly 600 records.
The book begins with her childhood and her learning years, her loves and disappointments, and her journey to becoming a star in the world of Hindustani music. She was a much-sought-after musician, was very well dressed and stylish, and went around Kolkata in a horse-drawn carriage. She was particularly known for her thumris, and sang in many royal courts all over India. The success of her gramophone records made her a celebrity in India, and she was also known in Europe. Hers was a story of great glory, and yet extreme sadness because she was not successful in love, much as she yearned for a happy relationship.
Towards the end of her life, she lost all that she earned, and finally reached the court of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV of Mysore, where she was appointed Palace Musician. Unfortunately, she died there within 18 months of going there.
‘My name is Gauhar Jaan’ ends with the following quote:
Hum tho markar bhi kitabon mein rahenge zinda; Gham unhi ka hai jo mar jaayen tho guzar jaaten hain
(Even in death I will remain immortal in the books that are written about me Pity those who don’t just die, but pass away into oblivion.)
The book comes with a CD with her earliest recordings, and of course, her signature ‘My name is Gauhar Jaan’ at the end of each recording. It is such a delight to listen to them!
Gauhar Jaan’s life was also made into a fascinating play I saw some years back. It was written by Mahesh Dattani and directed by the very talented Lilette Dubey. It was brilliantly acted and the actors – Rajeshwari Sachdev, Zila and others – also sang Gauhar’s thumris beautifully.
Thumri is a light-classical song form in classical Hindustani music with romantic or devotional lyrics.
This delightfully subversive look at the Apocalypse and everything that went before is one of my favourite books.
Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, have been living on Earth since the beginning. Crowley, who starts out as the serpent in the Garden of Eden but has taken on human form, has “dark hair and good cheekbones”, dresses in black and drives a Bentley with a cassette player that plays only Best of Queen. Any cassette left in his car for long enough turns into Best of Queen. Aziraphale is the angel who stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword, which he gives to Adam and Eve when they are expelled: “They looked so cold, poor things…and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up…”. He prides himself on his impeccable clothes and owns a rare books shop which is really a place for him to store the books. No sale is ever made and customers are persuaded quite quickly to leave.
Aziraphale and Crowley have grown quite fond of Earth and its inhabitants and have become, in a way, friends. “[Y]ou grew accustomed to the only other face that had been around more or less consistently for six millennia.” They have come to an Arrangement, in the way that “many isolated agents, working in conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents then their remote allies.” It consists of not interfering in some of the other’s activities, ensuring that neither side lost but neither side won.
Of course, their respective Authorities (or Head Offices) have no idea of this. But as long as the work gets done, no one seems to care.
That is, until the arrival of the Antichrist. Crowley is summoned to go collect the baby and deliver it to the hospital run by the nuns of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl. The plan is to swap the Antichrist for the American ambassador’s baby, whose wife is supposed to be the only patient there. (The nuns are really Satanists, which explains their cooperation with the dark forces). Except that Mr. and Mrs. Young, an English couple, are also there, having their child. Sister Mary, to whom Crowley hands over the child, mistakes Mr. Young for the ambassador, so the wrong baby is swapped.
Because of the mix-up, the Antichrist, named Adam, has a perfectly normal childhood in a little English town called Tadfield, while Crowley and Aziraphale are keeping an eye on the wrong child. All is well until Adam turns 11. That’s when things are set in motion, and Crowley and Aziraphale have to do everything they can to avert the end of the world.
There is so much to enjoy in this book. Famine, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a popular dietician who invents a no-food diet. Death is straight out of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. He speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS and is somehow cool. (He is one of my favourite characters in Discworld, so I’m biased.) The hellhound, sent to Earth to find his master (11-year-old Adam, who has no idea of the events unfolding around him), has glowing red eyes and a “low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace” but changes shape when Adam announces that his dog will be a bright, small mongrel called Dog. In a flash, a terrifying beast turns into a friendly—and rather surprised—pet.
The writing is brilliant—funny, sharp and observant, but then you expect nothing less from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Aziraphale and Crowley meet in St. James Park by the pond, where they can be unobserved. They talk as they feed the ducks, who are old hands at this. “The ducks in St. James’ Park are so used to being fed bread by secret agents meeting clandestinely that they have developed their own Pavlovian reaction. Put a St. James duck in a laboratory cage and show it a picture of two men—one usually wearing a coat with a fur collar, the other something sombre with a scarf—and it’ll look up expectantly.” Someone has the voice “the colour of an old raincoat”, and a computer has the “intelligence of a retarded ant”.
If you haven’t read this book yet, then you will love discovering it. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about.
Some of you have asked for books you can read during this time of lockdown and the threat of pandemic. Nothing too grim, something that will make you laugh or that will help you escape. So here is a far from exhaustive list, mostly, though not entirely, from my blog. And there is a also a list from Sophie, a reader of this blog.
Do you have any more suggestions? Respond in comments to this article.
To put a smile on your face and maybe warm your heart
Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with an ageing stage actor as Prospero. Delightful.
A Man Called Ove: Fredrick Backman Backman peels back the layers to reveal the heart behind the grumpy old man. Funny and heartbreaking (so it will bring tears to your eyes, but it is ultimately heart-warming).
The Sellout: Paul Beatty Hilariously subversive. Me (yes, that’s what he’s called, son of F.U. Me) tries to save his town from disappearing off the map. If that means making schools segregated again, then that’s what he will do.
Rosie is My Relative by Gerald Durrell Another of my favourites. A man living in London inherits an elephant with a tendency to drink and takes her across the country to find her a home. It starts slowly but is hilarious (especially when Rosie gets drunk in a stately home and goes skittering across the ballroom floor).
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree: Chris Stewart The second in Stewart’s account of living on a small farm in Alpujarras in Spain, and my favourite of the three. It made me laugh out loud, but it also brings the place to life.
A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles Towles’s charming book about a Russian gentleman who is confined to a hotel for 30 years while the country changes around him. Gentle and maybe appropriate for our times?
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: Tarquin Hall I would recommend all four books in this series. Although Hall isn’t Indian, he captures the Delhi lingo perfectly, and the books are delightful. But this one is my favourite—about the scars and secrets that still exist after the partition of India and Pakistan.
The Blackhouse: Peter May A whodunit set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. A police officer moves back to the island and gets pulled back into his past.
Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens A woman grows up on her own in the marshes of North Carolina. The police turn up when a body of a man from the nearby town is found there. But did she kill him?
The Long Way Home: Louise Penny An Armand Gamache whodunit. Gamache is pulled out of retirement when a friend asks him to help her find her husband. Set in Canada.
Historical crime novels
The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles: Susanna Gregory A series of whodunits set in medieval Cambridge, when science was emerging. The protagonist is a Benedictine doctor (not a monk), and through him, Gregory shows the battle between medicine and the old beliefs.
Dark Fire: C.J. Sansom A whodunit set in the time of Henry VIII. Sansom captures the period beautifully—the King and his entourage feel like real people. The protagonist is a hunchback lawyer in the service of Thomas Cromwell. Note: I have also reviewed another of the books in the series here: Tombland.
Twisty / complicated plots
S.: JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst A three in one book: the book itself is a novel written by VM Straka, then there are footnotes by the translator and in the margins are notes that a couple make to each other. Something to get lost in, with real inserts like a map drawn on a napkin.
Einstein’s Dreams: Alan Lightman A riff on time—the myriad ways that Einstein would imagine time: flowing, circling in on itself and moving in fits and starts. Beautifully written.
A Book of Silence: Sara Maitland Maitland, on her search for silence, finds that there are various kinds: the silence of the desert, that of the forest and being on one’s own—each of these has different qualities.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo In 1930s Malaya (today’s Malaysia), Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy, sets out on a mission: he has to find his late Master’s missing finger in 49 days and bury it, so that his master’s spirit rests in peace. Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a dressmaker and dancehall girl, is very unwillingly drawn into the search for the severed finger. Let me add that since a village girl might have been slaughtered by a Weretiger, the reader will find all the ingredients to an energetic and fascinating whodunit, in which superstitions and Confucian traditions play a predominant role. I did enjoy Ms Choo’s novel tremendously and cannot wait to read her second one, the Ghost Bride.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles In 1870 Texas, the aging Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd goes from town to town to read the country’s and the world’s news to a paying audience. A former Searcher and a Civil War hero, he agrees to return a 10-year-old captive to her relatives in San Antonio. Little Johanna, who was abducted by the Kiowas four years earlier, only thinks of herself as a Native, cannot speak her mother tongue anymore, and has no remembrance of her past. Of course, Captain Kidd and Johanna’s journey will not turn out as it was previously planned, and both travelers will have to live up to some very rough adventures. This excellent Western had me hooked from the very start, but is nonetheless more than a story of the Far West. The novel questions the issues of loss, delves into the power of love, to eventually exemplify Kidd and Johanna’s absolute resilience.
When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman This delicate novel is about Elly, her family and brother, Joe. It is a novel about love, about family ties and about growing up, it is above all the story of a brother, a sister and their secret. I found this story an exhilarating, elegant and very tender tale, spruced with wit and humour.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney The murder of a French fur trapper in the village of Caulfield, Ontario, is the starting point for a complex yet fascinating plot, set in 19th century Canada. The narrator starts on a perilous journey into the Canadian wilderness in order to find her son Francis, who went missing on the very same day the trapper was murdered. Mrs Ross, Francis’ mother, follows her son’s tracks into the wild, fighting for survival in a snow-covered nature that is as brutal as the several characters she will meet. This novel is not only a murder mystery. It is also a quest, a thriller, and a love story. It is also, so far, my favourite novel for 2020.
“Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Dylan Thomas
Guy is dying and has no intention of going gentle into the good night. He summons his best friends to his crumbling house by the quarry by telling them he has found a video that they had made during their days as film students, and which would be embarrassing to all of them if it were to be made public.
So they arrive: Holly, a film critic; Pris, a nurse and social worker; Haze, Pris’s ex-husband, a bit of a loser; Alison and Rob, a corporate couple; and Paul, a lawyer standing for parliament. It’s a mixed bunch and the already existing tensions between them are ratcheted up by Guy, who enjoys manipulating people. But once they’re there, Guy can’t remember what he has done with the tape. Or so he says.
The story is narrated by his son Kit, a young man with Asperger’s, who lives with Guy and cares for him. Extremely bright (by his own admission) and observant, Kit is the heart of this book. Guy, typically, hasn’t told Kit who his mother is. He spins him various stories, including the fact that one of the three women visiting that weekend is his mother. Which could be true—or not.
The cancer that is eating Guy is hollowing out everything, much as the quarry near the house is slowly encroaching on it. Guy battles his disease with rage, taking no prisoners. It’s hard on Kit, who tries to keep things under control and whose attempts at being positive are met with fury by his father.
But Kit has his secret world: he is a player in an online game where he is highly respected and into which he disappears. Holly is his one confidante.
Both father and son, in their own ways, expose the pointlessness and the hypocrisy of the social mores that most of take for granted. Kit tries to navigate the world around him, to behave “normally”, as coached by Holly. He goes along with it, unconvinced. “‘That’s nice’ is one of those pointless phrases I never have used but for Hol. My natural response to something like what Pris had just said would be nothing. So, she is going to Ormiscrake to meet her relationship partner for breakfast. Does that really require a response from me? No.”
Guy, on the other hand, welcomes his friends with a blistering attack on how people are around the dying. “Seems to be a very embarrassing thing, even quite distressing and upsetting for people, being around someone dying, coming to visit them. Specially when they can practically see an old mucker shrivelling away in front of them, like he’s letting the side down by doing something none of us is supposed to do for another forty years or whatever. … We don’t know how to react to them, how to treat them, how to maintain the usual isn’t-everything-marvellous…bullshit like we usually do.”
This is the kind of book I love: throw a bunch of people together in a small space and see how they react to one another. But more than anything else, this is a book about life and death. It is made more poignant by the fact that it was Iain Banks’s last book—he died of cancer soon after finishing it.
Although the book sounds depressing, it isn’t. Guy is not a likeable person but he is a force of nature. Each of the characters has a distinct voice, so much so that you can tell immediately who is speaking. Kit is a wonderful character: his dry humour and observations of the people and the goings-on around him bring a lightness to the book that might have otherwise been quite dark. You root for him throughout.
Set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, this book tells the story of a young girl, Matilda, who is 13 when we first meet her. The story takes places mostly in the 1990s, during the civil war and is narrated by Matilda.
Because of the civil war, the school is closed. The Australians, who were mining copper on the island, leave, taking with them some of the local men, including Matilda’s father. The only white man left on the island is Mr. Watts, married to Grace, a local woman. He is nicknamed Pop Eye by the kids:
“He looked like someone who had seen or known great suffering and hadn’t been able to forget it. His large eyes in his large head stuck out further than anyone else’s—like they wanted to leave the surface of his face. … Pop Eye wore the same white linen suit every day. His trousers snagged on his bony knees in the sloppy heat. Some days he wore a clown’s nose. … We never saw him smile. And on those days he wore the clown’s nose you found yourself looking away because you never saw such sadness.”
Mr. Watts reopens the school, but he has only one book for the students: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Slowly, the children become immersed in this world that is completely different from theirs. They learn about new things like frost and lawyers. The book is an escape for Matilda, who becomes a little obsessed by it. Her staunchly Christian mother does not approve of this: she worries that the white man will pollute her daughter’s mind and show her a world that will always be out of her reach. She is also afraid of losing Matilda, who is growing away from her.
Meanwhile, many of the young boys in the village have run off to join the rebels. The redskins (PNG forces) come looking for them, and unable to find them, attack the village. After they leave, the villagers have to face the rebels, who come down from the mountains where they have been hiding. Mr. Watts’s beloved Grace dies, leaving him distraught with grief. But things are about to get a lot worse.
It takes a cataclysmic event for Matilda to leave the island and make a new life for herself. As an adult she tries to unravel the mystery that was Mr. Watt, also known to some as Mister Pip (the protagonist of Great Expectations).
I didn’t know much about the history of Papua New Guinea, so I found this book really interesting. I believed in Matilda: the yearning for something more, the ups and downs of adolescence and finally, the realization that there is much more to people than you think, and even the ones you think you know best can surprise you.
The book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, though: some of the violence is particularly brutal and hard to take. I enjoyed it, but it left me with a sadness for the senseless waste of life that wars result in.
 A note on the civil war: it was fought by the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) against the Papua New Guinea forces (known here as the redskins). But it was not so straightforward—the BRA also fought other armed groups on the island.
“It is quite hard to remember which came first—the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence. … I became less driven, more reflective and great deal less frenetic. And into that space flowed silence: I would go out into the garden at night or in the early morning and just look and listen… . For the first time in my life I noticed the gradation of colours before sunrise—from indigo through apricot to a lapidary blueness.”
Our society seems to be getting noisier. Noise follows us everywhere—in the busyness of cities, the music in shops and 24-hour television. And even when there is no sound, there is noise of another kind—the distraction of social media and smartphones. It feels like people are afraid of being quiet. And paradoxically, quiet is also what many people yearn for: a slowing down, the time to stop and notice, and to reflect.
Sara Maitland grew up in a noisy household, where the children were encouraged to voice their opinions. She loved talking, so much so that she says her hobby was depnisophy (skill at dinner party talk). But after her divorce, when she starts to live alone, she finds what she really needs is silence and moves to an isolated house on the moor in Weardale, near the Penines.
Maitland is curious about silence: what it means, how it affects people differently and what drives those who go in search of it. She sets out to answer these questions both by going to remote places and by reading the accounts of others who have, voluntarily or involuntarily, spent long periods by themselves.
But how do you define silence? Is it just an absence of noise, of conversation, or a complete emptying of the mind? Does reading, or listening to classical music (without vocals) or loud bird calls count as being silent?
Before I read this, I hadn’t realized how many kinds of silence there were. There is the silence of hermits, and the one experienced by people alone on boats in the middle of the seas or hiking in the wilderness; the kind that focuses inward and the kind where the boundaries between the self and the universe fade. And there is the dark side, the path to madness.
People often fear the absence of sound, of communication. A retreat from the world and into utter silence is often seen as an indication of something not quite right, and a risk that isolation can lead to insanity. Rather than something that enriches, it is seen as an absence, a lack. Maitland disagrees. As a practising Christian and a writer, she values silence and the way it opens up a space within.
She writes about how the quality of silence changes with the landscape. The silence of the desert is very different from that of a forest. She goes to the Sinai desert and for the first time, hears “the sound of silence…the absence of anything to hear”. In a forest, there is always some sound—water, creatures or the wind through the trees. Also, in a desert or on a moor, everything is visible for miles. The forest, on the other hand, holds secrets, which is why fairy tales are so often set there.
Silence can affect the mind, playing tricks on it. One winter when she was snowed in, she ventures out for a walk. About half a mile from her house, she hears a terrifying sound, like the wailing of the damned. She is convinced that it will drive her insane, but eventually realizes that it was the wind.
But on the whole, there is more to gain than lose from silence. Being alone with your thoughts makes you more reflective, more self-aware and more still within. As the quote at the beginning of this piece shows, you become more aware of nature, of tiny changes and their meanings.
This is a rich book with interesting ideas, and a lot of research—it is full of quotes from other writers, which is sometimes interesting but at other times, a little too much. I learned a lot from this—and not just about silence.
“‘Things go on disappearing, one by one. … It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t even be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. … People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. … But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.’”
On an unnamed Japanese island, things are disappearing: emeralds, ribbons, bells, stamps, birds, photographs. Soon the people forget they even existed, except for a few who are unable to forget and try to salvage the disappeared things. The mother of the unnamed narrator, a novelist, is one such person. She pays for it—one day, the Memory Police come to take her away, and the narrator never sees her again.
Because none of the disappearances are natural occurrences. They are being orchestrated by a nebulous power—a dictatorship of some kind, although that is never clear. The Memory Police are the enforcers of this power, scouring the island for those who can’t forget.
The book the novelist is working on is an echo of the situation on the island. It is about a young typist and her teacher. Under his influence, she gradually loses her voice and can only communicate by typing. But when her typewriter breaks down, the teacher lures her to a room in the tower under the pretext of repairing it. He imprisons her in that room filled with broken typewriters.
The one person the novelist trusts completely with her work is her editor, R. But he is, like her mother, someone who is unable to forget. Worried that he will meet the same fate as her mother, she decides to hide him in her home, with the help of an old man who was married to her nurse. But it isn’t easy hiding a man under the eyes of the Memory Police. And how long can she hang on when everything around her is vanishing into thin air?
The way the book is written is almost like a fable. Most of the characters do not have names, as if they were insubstantial. It is about the loss of memory, a loss so deep that looking at a disappeared object brings no spark of recognition. It is also about a loss of identity, of the loss of control over our innermost selves. Our memories make us who are and if they start to dissipate and vanish, then who are we? This haunting book stayed with me for a while after I had finished reading it.