When someone doesn’t speak, when they cut the rest of us off from their opinions and histories, they still can’t avoid being talked about. The narrator of Layla AlAmmar’s thoughtful novel Silence is a Sense, lives a silenced life in a housing estate in London sometime after civil war broke out in Syria. She won’t tell anyone her name. She certainly won’t tell anyone about the terrible things that happened to her and her family between Syria and England. And yet, this book is loud with all of the things the narrator refuses to say. It’s also loud with all the assumptions that people make about the narrator, about Muslims, about things happening in other countries, and about other people’s behavior. I was completely gripped by this book.
These days, the narrator makes a bit of money writing for online publications and lives on funds she receives as an asylum seeker. She has a flat in a cluster of buildings where everyone can see and hear everyone else’s business. The narrator is no exception. She constantly observes her neighbors, who she names for one of their habits. There’s the Juicer, who has an obsessive exercise routine and diet. There’s the No-Lights Man, who likes to roam around his apartment in the dark unless he has company. The Russians (who might not actually be Russian) shout at each other and bang pots and pans on the other side of the shared wall. I was strongly reminded of the very beginning of Rear Window, although this book never turns into a mystery.
The narrator’s sharp observations of her current circumstances are punctuated with memories of things she very much does not want to recall, so we only learn about her flight from Syria in snatches. Her editor is always asking for those memories. Josie publishes the narrator’s essays about the treatment of refugees and immigrants, civil war, and the like, but she really wants human interest pieces from events in the narrator’s life. I can understand why the narrator resists. First, writing would mean remembering. The narrator copes with past trauma by not thinking about it. Second, what would publishing her memories really achieve? Would it change international policy? Would it change her neighbor’s minds? Or would it be something a reader downs with their cup of coffee in the morning and then moves on from?
The only thing that draws the narrator out of her cocoon is a growing conflict brewing at a nearby mosque. The imam is doing his best to create a good relationship with the community. Most people are fine with this, but there’s a loud group of racists who are very much Not Happy. The escalation of angry words and fists brings the narrator’s memories to the surface. At the same time, she bumps into No-Lights Man (who knows she has been observing him and everyone else in the housing estate). He rescues her more than once when the memories threaten to swamp the narrator. He also wants the narrator’s memories—this time to help inspire people to fight for refugees and tolerance for immigrants. The last third or so of Silence is a Sense shows the narrator struggling with the choice to speak again or remain silent.
Silence is a Sense is a fresh, original take on the refugee experience. It may be ironic for a book about a character who refuses to speak, but this book has so much to say about everything. I loved it, even though it was full of hard things. The narrator’s silent voice asked questions I’d never thought of before, shared perspectives I didn’t even know existed, and did it all with intelligence and a dash of snark. I can’t say enough good things about Silence is a Sense.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.