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Review - The Silent Land

This is my first review here, so please be kind ;) Any feedback on how to approve my reviews would be appreciated!
 
The Silent Land – Graham Joyce
Genre: Literature / Supernatural

Ganked from blurb:The Silent Land
Zoe and Jake are caught in an avalanche during a skiing holiday. They struggle back to their village only to find it deserted. As the days go by they wait for rescue, then try to leave. But each time they find themselves back in the village, with the entire resort to themselves. Then come the visions and the dreams, and the glimpses of familiar figures out in the snow.

And the realisation that perhaps no-one could have survived the avalanche….


Review – no spoilers
Joyce took on the difficult task to make a mix of cliched horror elements work. Don’t get me wrong, the whole creepy can’t-leave-the-village/weird-things-stalking-us vibe was what attracted me in the first place, but it is hardly original. Joyce did try to bring something new to the table though, by attempting to write a literary variant to the story. Notice the word attempt: although I have read a lot of raving reviews of this book, I wasn’t completely charmed.
How does one lift this premise above a standard horror novel and into the realm of literature? Themes, inner conflict, and style, I suppose. Joyce tried to tackle them all, but I personally think he was in over his head.

Joyce employs a very detached, sober style. On one hand I can understand this: by placing a wall between the reader and the main characters, the focus is placed away from the mundane aspects of their predicament, and more on what their situation means. However, it also has awkward results. Zoe, buried underneath tons of snow, tries not to panic. We get this snippet:

“There was almost a split inside herself as the part of her that wanted to give in to panic made an argument with the side of her that knew if wanted to survive she should stay composed.”
- And that’s it. The author just drones on about what goes on, as if she’s clipping her nails instead of fighting for her life. He doesn’t even really describe this inner argument.

Later, when Zoe sees two monstrously huge ravens perched on her car, the first life she has seen in days, Joyce presents us what I assume should be an intimidating scene. We are told that they look: “both uninterested and vaguely threatening at the same time”, “unusually large”, and that she “felt a sensation of revulsion and with it a flutter of fear.” Later, he does try: “The image of the creature with its beak gaping had a hallucinatory clarity. The open maw of the bird was like a small cavern, and in the cavern was a silver river, threading away into darkness. The bird made a strange cough.” But it’s too little, too late. And I have read segments with birds that completely creeped me out (I’m talking about you, Stephen King – since reading a bit about seagulls in The Talisman I’m very distrustful of them).Some of the things that happen in the book are delightfully creepy, but Joyce describes them so dryly that all joy is sucked from them. Near the end of the book Jake tells Zoe that one of the differences between them is that she is scared of what’s happening, and he is not, and I was surprised to read that, because I felt they were both very laid-back about what was happening.

This might just not be a style I personally enjoy, but I felt that using such uninventive language and staying so close to what was happening and far from how the characters experienced it, the book lost a sense of urgency and wonder that would have benefited it, especially as by the end of the novel their situation becomes less and less pleasant.

The second was inner conflict. Zoe and Jake were…nice. And that’s it. They were nice. Most of the conflict comes from outside, not from inside. There are a few revelations about their relationship in the book, but they are treated so casually that I felt there was no real tension between the two of them, or really within them. We are given interesting glances, only to be cut off from them as the characters immediately move towards a status quo in their relationship again. For me, the book would have had more literary value if there had been more changes, more conflict, between them. And that’s the weird thing – the elements were all there. They were stressed, there were secrets kept between them, they had different views on what was happening to them. I thought they were a sweet and realistic couple, but I don’t think the novel really needed sweet and realistic.

The third was themes. Man, Joyce tried to tackle A LOT of themes, in a VERY short book. With only 250 pages, he not only tells a story in which the rules are not the same as in this world, but he also tries to inject thoughts on the life after death, religion, the way love is layered, subjectivity and truth, and the way in which language shapes our perception. I thought it was way too much, and it continuously stayed on the surface because the book was so so so short. At times Zoe and Jake had conversations about their life, their new world, and death, and they would be interesting and thought-provoking, and half a page later they would be doing something completely else again. I think that Joyce should have focused on one or two themes, preferably those to do with death, and that he should have given them more depth. The segments about the importance of language really annoyed me. It’s a area of interest of mine, and I’ve read a few books that tried to make this abstract notion more palpable (with varying success: I loved Auster’s The New York Trilogy, was quite taken with Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, and disliked Thomas’s The End of mr. Y). Joyce was a bit inane. I could see where he wanted to go, but he really had nothing to add beyond what any of us could think of after a couple of beers.

There were some things I did really like: the setting, the atmosphere, and the concepts that were put forward in the story. I also think Joyce has a pleasant style and a good way with words – I’m just not sure if it was what this story needed.

In short:
Joyce tried to mix horror and literature in this novel. The problem with leaning on two genres is that the sum has to be greater than the parts. Instead, I feel that the Joyce wanted to tell too much story in too few pages and it made both aspects fall flat. Although I really did enjoy it and I have to admit I shed a few tears near the end, I think the story could have been much more than it was. Joyce is a good writer: he has a consistent, stark style and a nose for interesting concepts, but I think the literary elements he put into the story were not quite up to par, and his focus was not on horror at all really, so that didn’t work well either. Although I completely understand why this book has gotten such good reviews, I think those reviews are more about the potential of this novel, and the refreshing way it plays with notions, than about the actual novel itself. Then again, one of my biggest dislikes was the style of this novel, and that might well be a matter of preference.

Rating: 3.5 of 5.

You can find my reviews on http://unreasonablereader.blogspot.com/.
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