Book review

Rosamund Lupton's The Quality Of Silence

The quality of silence
The quality of silencePHOTO: ST FILE

By Rosamund Lupton

Little, Brown/Hardcover/338 pages/$35.56/Major bookstores/5/5

Ruby is a 10-year-old who was born deaf. She arrives in Alaska with her mother Yasmin, an astrophysicist-turned-stay-home mum after Ruby's birth.

Matt, Ruby's father, a wildlife film-maker, has been away for three months in Anaktue, a remote Arctic village. He had arranged to meet them at the airport, but when Ruby and Yasmin arrive, they are greeted by news of a catastrophic fire at the Inupiaq village where everyone allegedly lost their lives.

Refusing to believe Matt is dead, Yasmin and Ruby set off to look for him, embarking on a perilous journey to the north.

As they drive through the wintry wilderness, there are signs they are being followed. They receive strange e-mail messages and find their truck tailed by a pair of blue headlights.

This novel is a winner for several reasons. Lupton's prose is as beautiful as it is pacey.

As a thriller, the novel succeeds because the reader is kept on tenterhooks to the end. She keeps the reader turning the pages, anxious to know what is going to happen next to Ruby and Yasmin.

Is Matt truly still alive or is the belief that he had survived the catastrophe mere delusion on Yasmin and Ruby's part? How will they survive the snowstorm? Who is following them as they make their way towards Anaktue?

Lupton also succeeds from the opening of the novel to engage the reader through Ruby's voice.

There is a rich irony in this given that Ruby does not like to use her mouth-voice. Her preference is to use sign language to communicate. Because she cannot hear, she tells her mother that speaking with her mouth-voice makes her feel like she has disappeared.

Ruby's difference and disability are intertwined: She is different from other girls because of her deafness, but she is also a very special individual in her own right. As the title suggests, there is something intrinsically unique about the quality of her silence.

It comes from her relationship with language: She has a poet's sensibility delivered through a child's eyes and this comes across most distinctively in a thread of her tweets under the hashtag of "Words_No_Sounds" that is woven throughout the entire novel, tweets about what words feel, sound and look like.

When Ruby tells her 650 followers about the sensory properties of nouns such as noise and excitement, she comes across as being more than a precocious child who has surmounted her disability.

She is a powerhouse of language who speaks in metaphors as naturally as she breathes.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns about the wounds within the family that have been festering since Ruby was born.

Although the plot charts Yasmin and Ruby's search for Matt, at its centre is an extraordinary story about a family's healing.

Lupton paints the rift between the parents through Yasmin and she makes the pain of misunderstandings accumulated over time felt through a counterpoint of flashbacks to happier times, to what Matt and Yasmin were like before their marriage.

Lupton's portrayal of Yasmin's anguish and courage makes her a character whom the reader roots for from start to end.

The flashbacks allow the reader to see how Yasmin herself was in need of rescuing before she arrives in Alaska and makes the bold decision to mount her own rescue operation for her husband.

In a novel that is filled with more descriptions of the bleak and bone-chilling hostility of sub-zero temperatures in Alaska than what one imagines to be possible, it is remarkable that at its close, the reader is left with a feeling of toasty comfort. There is a sub-plot about the hydraulic fracturing of oil in Alaska, but to say too much about that would be to give too much away.

If you like this, read: Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, 2005, $20.87, Books Kinokuniya). A humorous and sad novel about a nine-year-old's search for answers after his father's tragic death during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - JULY05G'. Print Edition | Subscribe