In Graham Joyce’s brave and ultimately heartbreaking new novel, “The Silent Land,” a young married couple trapped in a deserted Alpine village must come to terms with strange events that test the strength of their relationship. In its melding of the bizarre and the personal, this tour de force invites comparison to the work of Haruki Murakami and Ian McEwan.
When an avalanche strikes during a ski run, Jake and Zoe must dig their way out. The scene is so perfectly rendered that it leaves the reader with the ghost-sensation of being buried alive. They return to the hotel Saint-Bernard-en-Haut only to find it deserted, with every sign of swift departures by staff and fellow guests. But their attempts to leave the village end in failure. Even more alarming, they observe odd phenomena, including candles that never burn down and meat on the hotel kitchen counter that never goes bad.
Joyce’s skill at conveying the creepiness of these inexplicable events creates undeniable tension. The novel is encased, like the village, in a veil of ice and mystery. A frozen stream is a “thin, twisted bolt of silk, mysterious and beautiful in the fairy-tale darkness,” while rocks covered in snow form “jagged, rotten-colored teeth.”
Joyce moves inexorably into the center of his characters’ lives. Even a moment when Zoe takes jewelry from a deserted store functions as a comment not just on consumerism but also on their relationship: “What must it be like to be rich,” she thinks, “if you could just pick this stuff up without it creasing your brow for a second? There could be no satisfaction in acquiring anything where there had been no difficulty, no struggle.” Jake and Zoe are not without flaws, but throughout the novel they work hard to maintain the vital intimacy that marks a marriage based on love and respect.
Joyce juxtaposes the surreal events in and around the hotel with Jake and Zoe’s memories of their dead fathers. Thinking about Archie, a “retired engineer from Dundee, working-class boy made good,” Zoe recalls his admonition to “hold onto the moment.” But what, she wonders, in one of the novel’s most exquisite passages, was the moment? “Spindrift on the back of a sunlit wave? A fox’s tail as it disappears through the hedgerow? A meteorite as it flares in the August night sky?”
In stark contrast to this mournful serenity, the story of Jake’s father, Peter, and his losing fight against cancer is filled with the gritty horror of sickness. Even though lost in a fog of confusion and profanity, Peter inadvertently gives Jake the insight into the past needed for a late reconciliation. These short, evocative scenes give added weight to Zoe’s observation that now “every detail [of my life], every word, seems intense and packed with significance.” But these momentous realizations also make the couple’s predicament seem even more ominous.
Eventually, the candles begin to burn more quickly, the meat in the kitchen to rot, and it appears that the new anxiety entering Jake and Zoe’s lives will be an all-too-familiar fear of impending mortality, in a winter wonderland where they had been alone but not lonely. However, apparitions soon appear, the phone rings in the middle of the night, and strange men in the snow vanish when approached. Every evening becomes more ominous than the next, until twilight feels “like a mantle, a quiet invasion, a horde of creeping creatures surrounding the hotel.”
The novel’s conclusion is both beautiful and devastating with its insight into the lives of two decent, honest people. Few times while reading fiction have I been so overcome by how remembering the past and living in the moment combine to form the core of our existence. In “The Silent Land” — a classic in the making — Joyce’s great and abiding gift is to make the reader feel this truth fiercely and protectively.
VanderMeer’s latest book is “Monstrous Creatures,” a collection of his reviews and essays. He lives in Tallahassee.