Top 10 books about silence | Abbie Greaves

Not saying anything can be as eloquent as speech, as told by authors from ranging from Pat Barker to Carson McCullers and Ian McEwan

Silence in a book is a funny old thing. Too much of it and the reader may well want their money back. Too little and what’s left of suspense, mystery, drama? In literature as in life, there is much to learn from what is left unsaid.

For writers, silence is a gift. Whether it comes in the form of characters confined to silence or those committed to muting voices that are deemed dangerously other, there are few authors who haven’t at some point grappled with the question of how best to represent, well, nothing.

I have long been fascinated by silence. As noisy child and adolescent, I experienced a fair few arched eyebrows when I decided to write my undergraduate dissertation on ellipsis in modernist literature. Fast forward four years to when I started writing fiction and the subject of silence was still at the forefront of my mind, specifically the sort that can settle at the centre of a long-term relationship.

In my novel, The Silent Treatment, Frank and Maggie have been married for 40 years but they haven’t spoken for the last six months. It is at once an uplifting love story and a mystery, an emotional drama and a meditation on trauma in a family. The further I explored the subject of silence in my characters’ lives, the more I learned that it is a compound of nuances that mean something different to everyone. Silence can be both terrifying and calming, at once isolating and communicative in its own way, depending on who is expressing it.

If I were to identify one unifying feature in the books listed below, it would be the way in which readers themselves are made to work harder when confronted with an impenetrable quiet. After all, it could be saying anything …

1. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
After being brutally raped, Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, also has her tongue pulled out and her hands cut off to stop her reporting who is responsible for the attack. Incapacitated and robbed of her precious chastity, Lavinia’s powerlessness becomes a potent symbol of the silencing of abused women.

2. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Barker retells the Iliad primarily from the perspective of Briseis, the woman awarded as a prize to Achilles after the ransacking of Lyrnessus. With the narrative in her hands, there is nowhere to hide from the misogyny of ancient Greece. Ajax may be convinced that “silence becomes a woman”, but it is through Barker’s reclaiming of the voices muted by history that we realise just how much modern resonance these classical stories hold in the #MeToo era.

3. A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
When Steffi, a selective mute, meets Rhys, a deaf pupil at her school, their worlds begin to open up. For Steffi, the prospect of speech is riddled with anxiety and Barnard provides a sensitive exploration of the issue for a young adult audience. Steffi and Rhys communicate in part through BSL, a fascinating entry point into deaf culture. As their friendship quietly builds in something more, will Steffi find her voice and the courage to use it, again?

4. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
John Singer starts the novel as one of two mutes in a small, Georgia mill town. When his best friend George is taken to a mental institution, John becomes isolated. Until, that is, he begins to take his meals in a local cafe and establishes himself as the silent confidant for the various people who frequent it. A beautiful exploration of conversation, its difficulties and the often-mystical search for understanding.

Isabel Allende in 1985.
Isabel Allende in 1985. Photograph: Felipe Amilibia/AFP/Getty Images

5. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Following the lives of three generations of the Trueba family, this novel is marked by the decision of matriarch Clara to fall silent for nine years after the death of her older sister. In place of speech, Clara turns to writing, art and her spiritual powers as alternative means to connect with the world around her. This is suitably beguiling proof that shouting the loudest isn’t always the best way to be heard.

6. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
In this memoir, we follow Wamariya’s journey from the Rwandan massacre in 1994 through the six years she and her sister spent displaced in seven African countries, until they are eventually granted refugee status in the US. As she reflects on her trauma, Wamariya struggles with the inability of language to do justice to her lived experience. It is impossible to forget the passage where she explores why “genocide” fails to capture the full scope of an atrocity: “You cannot bear witness with a single word.”

7. Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson
This little-known novel follows Miriam Henderson across 13 volumes (or “novel-chapters” as Richardson wanted them to be known), following her quotidian life as a young working woman in early 20th-century London. The text is characterised by a high quantity of ellipses (‘…’) as Richardson plays into a wider modernist fascination with absence and its representation. A long read, but one that more than rewards the effort and, in the process, sheds light on the silence that lies at the heart of consciousness.

Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in the 2008 film version of Atonement.
Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in the 2008 film version of Atonement. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

8. Atonement by Ian McEwan
To keep shtum, or not to keep shtum – that’s one of the big questions in play in this Booker prize-shortlisted novel. From Paul and Lola’s silence over Robbie’s wrongful imprisonment to Briony’s attempt at repentance through voicing her version of the truth, it’s a story that shows just how compelling silence can be as a narrative device.

9. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
At 30, Liptrot moves from London to Orkney, the site of her childhood, as she comes to terms with the alcoholism that characterised her 20s. In the dichotomy between city and island life, urban noise and wild silence, it’s a stunning meditation on the restorative power of nature and its power to heal.

10. Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge
As an adventurer, Kagge was the first person to complete the “three poles challenge”, reaching the north pole, south pole and the summit of Everest. Rest assured, he isn’t encouraging a trip to any/all of the three in a quest to find silence in the modern world. Rather, Kagge advocates finding pockets of quiet throughout everyday life – whether that’s on the walk to work, in the shower, or taking a moment of stillness over a sandwich during lunchbreak.

  • The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves is published by Century. To order a copy, go to Free UK P&P on orders over £15.

Abbie Greaves

The GuardianTramp

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