Jake took off his sunglasses and thumbed his still-bloodshot eyes. Zoe kept asking him questions, as if he knew, as if he had the faintest idea of the answers. If this were an afterlife, would it last forever? Did it fade? Would other people come into it? Could they die inside this death? Why was time there measured by the movement of the sun and the moon but not by the burning of a candle? She had a hundred such questions, and Jake would say: All I know is that there is sun and sky and snow and me and you, that's all I know. And she would rage against him, until he felt obliged to try to answer the questions for her, even though he admitted now that he'd spent all of his life pretending to know the unknowable, pretending to be able to outstare the man in the hood. (p. 87)
Graham Joyce's The Silent Land is a hard novel to describe without resorting to describing much of the book's central elements. It is in turns a love story, an exploration of relationships, a confrontation with death, a horror novel, a poetic dual soliloquy, and a story about life and life's memories. Yet it is more than the sum of its parts or what any summary could attempt to explain with a few pithy paragraphs.
The Silent Land is set in the French alps. A British couple, Jake and Zoe, both in their thirties, are vacationing there. On their way down the slopes, an avalanche is triggered and both are trapped. Joyce describes this harrowing scene and their apparent escape in precise, almost too minute, detail. As they make their way back to the village, they begin to notice that things are oddly different: there are no people, candles stay lit for days, and if it weren't for the movement of the sun and moon, time itself would have seemed to have stayed still for him.
Joyce plays with reader expectations that this might be a sort of romantic ghost story: we see the couple pondering if they are trapped in a sort of Limbo, where there is no Heaven nor Hell, but only the two of them. We discover their flaws, their conceits, and their secrets. At times this is stereotypical detail for a romantic story that some readers might expect. Yet there is more than this to Joyce's tale.
Little details, such as the sudden, flitting appearances of a man wearing a black mask or hood or the inexplicable ringing of a hotel phone and the incomprehensible (French?) voice on the other side, make the reader reassess what she might have assumed to be the novel's point. What Joyce does with these seemingly innocuous details is create something that is more haunting than a love story and more profound than any possible expounding on life (and death)'s mysteries could hope to attain by itself.
There are flaws to this narrative, however. At times, the narrative threatens to become too treacly, too focused on the complex love/lust relationship of Jake and Zoe, to rise above the stereotypes associated with stories and movies like Ghost. Ultimately, however, Joyce's narrative manages to twist these built-in reader expectations subtly enough that there ends up being much more than a surface afterlife love tale. The key turning point is when Jake and Zoe share stories of their fathers' dying moments; of the confusion, stress, heartbreak, and acceptance found within remembering what their lives were and how their deaths reinforced those memories. It is in these tales that Joyce unites several themes that he had only tentatively explored in the main narrative: trust, love, hope, fear, confusion, and ultimately acceptance. When their true fates are known, these two entwined tales, along with several small and yet important clues buried within the text, serve to create a narrative that is achingly heartwarming.
The Silent Land is the most lyrical and evocative of the six World Fantasy Award nominees for Best Novel. It slowly builds, despite a few false notes in its prose and structure, to a very powerful and poignant conclusion. Its characterization is top-notch and long after the final pages are read, its themes will haunt readers. It might just be the most well-rounded of the finalists and it certainly is my current favorite out of the five that I have read to date.