Tuesday, 3 September 2013

'Days in the History of Silence' by Merethe Lindstrøm (Review)

My first attempt at requesting books from Netgalley, a couple of years back, ended in confusing cyber-failure, and the e-mail suggestions I've received from them on a regular basis since then have been, well, let's say 'underwhelming'.  A while back though, I saw on Twitter that there was something a little different available, a novel which had won the Nordic Council Literature Prize (the Scandinavian equivalent of the Booker Prize).  I clicked a few buttons, and the publishers (Other Press) were kind enough to allow me an e-copy.  So how did my second Netgalley adventure end up?  Let's find out...

Merethe Lindstrøm's Days in the History of Silence (translated by Anne Bruce) took out Scandinavia's top literary prize in 2012.  It's a fairly shortish novel, one which is written in the form of an extended monologue.  Eva, a retired school teacher, lives alone in her house with her older husband, Simon.  If that sounded like a strange sentence, it was deliberately so; Simon has retreated into his shell, and the silence is becoming deafening for his frustrated wife.

While she considers whether or not to fill in the application form for a nursing home, Eva thinks back over her life and particularly over the last few years.  While Simon had a tough start to life as a Jew in 1940s Europe, it is a more recent event which may have triggered his withdrawal, the sacking of the couple's Latvian housekeeper, Marija.  As Eva thinks back to what she might have said to change events, she begins to discover that secrets can come back to haunt you, even when there's nobody to tell them...

Days in the History of Silence has a very tense opening, when a stranger enters the house, for no good reason and leaves after a few nervous minutes.  The event has no real tangible connection with the rest of the novel, and this is very typical for the book.  It is full of unrelated events, occurrences which the reader will try to connect, looking for unspoken links below the surface of the page (or screen!).  It's a very subtle story for the most part, Eva's monologue serving only to keep the most important matters hidden from view.

As Simon's descent into silence becomes more complete, Eva's frustration increases.  Suddenly, she feels as if she is alone, trapped inside a large, empty house:
"I need to tell this to someone, how it feels, how it is so difficult to live with someone who has suddenly become silent.  It is not simply the feeling that he is no longer there.  It is the feeling that you are not either."
(Other Press, 2013)
Eva is understandably upset at being abandoned, emotionally, by her husband; however, it can't be said that she's entirely free from blame herself.

One of the major themes in the book is the importance of the unsaid, and in Eva's house there are plenty of topics which were never mentioned.  The house invasion at the start of the book is a secret which has been kept for years, and Simon was never able to tell their three daughters about his experiences during the war.  When the couple decided to let Marija go, the daughters are unable to understand why their parents would fire a woman who had become a part of the family - and Eva simply cannot bring herself to tell them.  By keeping silent for all these years, Eva has created her own cocoon of silence, one she's unlikely to escape from.

One of the better aspects of the novel is the way it describes the life of the elderly (or, in Eva's case, the not-quite-elderly).  Life goes on elsewhere, but for Eva and Simon it's winding down, leaving them trailing along in the distance - alone, together.  At times, it seems that there are no more words simply because it's too late; the time for them has passed and gone forever.

It wasn't all good though.  Eva's monologue was a little tiring at times - there was nothing really outstanding in the writing, or in her voice, to make the reader enjoy the experience of her company.  The book also places a lot of weight on the reason for Marija's dismissal, dragging out the pivotal event until near the end.  When it finally arrives, it feels like an anti-climax, a revelation that wasn't really worth waiting for (although it does fit in nicely with the understated nature of the novel).  I get the feeling that many people will love this book, but for me it just drifted by.  At times, it was just too understated for its own good...

With all the stories from the past (the intruder, the dying dog, Simon's past, Marija...), you get the impression that there's something there, something that remains tantalisingly beyond reach.  I'm really not certain what it is though.  One thing's for sure - Eva is afraid of what lies ahead:
"Again that thought pops up, that underneath everything, the house, the children, all the years of movement and unrest, there has been this silence.  That it has simply risen to the surface, pushed up by external changes.  Like a splinter of stone is forced up by the innards of the earth, by disturbances in the soil, and gradually comes to light in the spring.  And that is what really frightens me.  How that reminds me of something else.  Is it meaninglessness?"
Perhaps the worst thing for Eva is not the upsetting events of her past.  It's the realisation that this is the way it's going to be from now on - a life of silence and regrets...