The Silent Land, Graham Joyce

It’s Saturday morning in Tokyo, and I just got my box of April books from the States, four of which will comprise my Whodunit column for BookPage. It will be a difficult choice this month, as there are offerings from C.J. Box, James Thompson, Jonathan Kellerman, Joe R. Lansdale, Henning Mankell, Harlan Coben and more. Abby, my editor, sent along another book as well, with a pink Post-It on the front cover which read: “Something different, but it could be interesting…” I peeled off the Post-It to reveal the title: The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce.

Hmm, don’t know him. In my experience, though, Abby has been a pretty good judge of what I might like, so I flipped the book over to have a look at the synopsis on the back cover. Here’s a synopsis of the synopsis: Jake and Zoe, Brit tourists on holiday in Chamonix, are overtaken by a treacherous avalanche while skiing, and buried alive. Somehow they manage to dig their way out, but when they finally make their way back to the hotel, they find it completely empty. All communications are out; to every appearance they are the last people on earth. Fearing another avalanche, they make haste to leave the vacant village, but every effort they make, whether by car, on skis, or on foot, finds them eerily and inexplicably right back where they started. Shades of Stephen King! Okay, I was hooked.

A flashback: I read The Shining back when it first came out, while camping on a deserted beach near Mulege, Mexico. Twilight was closing in as I plowed through the final chapters; there was no way I could go to sleep without finishing it, so I lit a chapel’s worth of votive candles in order that I could keep reading. If you’ve read that book, you will likely remember that the denouement didn’t contribute much to a good night’s sleep, but still, it was better than not knowing. I felt much the same with The Silent Land. As with the best fantasy novels, it is difficult to determine where the reality ends and the supernatural begins, which of the things seen out of the corner of one’s eye belong to the real world and which are imagination, or worse. The protagonists quite rightly question their sanity as their sense of time becomes strangely fluid, and they begin to experience auditory and visual hallucinations, often at distinct variance with one another. It is at the very least a weird sort of reality, populated only with ominous black birds, and a friendly dog that bears a striking resemblance to Jake’s long-dead childhood pet. Add to that a cell phone that rings at inopportune times (with a garbled foreign voice at the other end), a kitchen counter full of raw meats and vegetables that never seem to spoil, and the repeated creaking and grumbling of the dangerously unstable snow…

Author Joyce has won basically every award in his field: the O. Henry Award (multiple times); the British Fantasy Award; and the World Fantasy Award. His 1998 book The Tooth Fairy, was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of that year. It is easy to see, from reading The Silent Land, just what all the fuss is about. His work is thought provoking and hypnotic, as much a treatise on what is important in life as it is a compelling page turner. It’s not the sort of book that fits in the Whodunit column, which is basically a mystery venue, but it definitely merits a place on the short list of all fantasy and horror novel aficionados. Thanks Abby!

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