Special thanks to Algonquin Books for inviting me to be on the blog tour and for providing the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Goodreads: Silence Is a Sense
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: 16 March 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
A young woman sits in her apartment in an unnamed English city, absorbed in watching the small dramas of her assorted neighbors through their windows across the way. Traumatized into muteness after a long, devastating trip from war-torn Syria to the UK, she believes that she wants to sink deeper into isolation, moving between memories of her absent boyfriend and family and her homeland, dreams, and reality. At the same time, she begins writing for a magazine under the pseudonym “the Voiceless,” trying to explain the refugee experience without sensationalizing it—or revealing anything about herself.
Gradually, as the boundaries of her world expand—as she ventures to the neighborhood corner store, to a gathering at a nearby mosque, and to the bookstore and laundromat, and as an anti-Muslim hate crime shatters the members of a nearby mosque—she has to make a choice: Will she remain a voiceless observer, or become an active participant in her own life and in a community that, despite her best efforts, is quickly becoming her own?
TL;DR: March 15 marked ten years since the start of the Syrian war. Millions of people have been become refugees and internally displaced and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. These are numbers that are so LARGE that it’s impossible to comprehend. What is it like for people to literally watch their nation crumble right before their eyes? To have to choose between leaving and living or staying and (very possibly) dying? As stated in an interview, through this book, AlAmmar set out to ‘dispel the abstractions’ of the literal crumbling of a nation and to ground the magnitude of such devastation and loss through a personal narrative and she does an INCREDIBLE job. Poetically written, thought-provoking and emotionally explosive, this isn’t an easy read at all but my gosh is it absolutely worth it! This will undoubtedly be one of the most impactful books I read in 2021 and I highly recommend it.
CW/TW (not exhaustive, please read with care): Xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, violence, hate crimes, murder, political oppression, rape, war scenes(bombings, drowning, torture and imprisonment), trauma, scenes of self-harm, sex, “refugee porn”.
I’ve sat with my thoughts and feelings about Silence Is a Sense for two days now in the hopes that I’d be able to better formulate a review and I’m honestly no closer to being able to do that than when I first finished reading the book. I know that whatever I write about it won’t do the book justice but I’m going to try to find my words (sorry if this is a hot mess)!
It’s been a while since a book has so swiftly taken me by surprise. I knew this was going to be a tough read from the moment I saw the synopsis, and I wasn’t wrong, but I also wasn’t expecting it to so suddenly strangle my emotions the way it did and I attribute that to AlAmmar’s quietly engrossing and atmospheric writing. It’s poetic and linguistically rich and in turns easy and difficult to get lost in but it perfectly captures the fragile state of our narrator’s mind and allows us to completely immerse ourselves in her existence.
When we meet our unnamed narrator, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, she’s living deep in solitary silence and caged by her mind full of trauma and fear. She is a keen and quiet observer of her neighbours lives through the windows of their flats, and she wonders at the things they do, what they’ve experienced that led them to where they are today, and she marvels at the freedom and feelings of safety that they exhibit. She writes articles for an online magazine as ‘The Voiceless’ where she shares her thoughts on the politics of war, religious extremism, media and consumerism, nationalism, racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Unsurprisingly, there’s a great deal of social commentary in what our protagonist writes and thinks, and though they’re not foreign ideas or concepts they are still deeply thought-provoking. It makes you (re)consider how things like war and refugees and their trauma and experiences are utilised by the media. Through her observations and her thoughts, we glean what it was like to live in a country where voicing dissent or standing out in socially/culturally unacceptable ways can lead to disappearance or death; where ‘big brother’ is really real. We get a small glimpse of what refugees have to endure–the trauma, humiliation, starvation, fear–when they decide to leave everything behind, to put their lives in other peoples hands, in order to start a life somewhere foreign without ever knowing whether ‘home’ will even exist to return to one day.
The story is presented in a mix of mediums and is told through present-day observations, vivid dreams and imaginative conjurings, flashbacks and memories. I have to admit to feeling a great deal of confusion at the start as I tried working out what was real and what wasn’t, but in retrospect, I realise AlAmmar did a fantastic job in capturing the progression of our narrator’s mental journey as she works through her trauma and the stages of her grief. The beginning is heavy with confusion, and uncontrollable flashbacks and escaped memories, but they lessen as she slowly releases herself from her mental cage(s) and immerses herself in the community. Her (internal) voice, which starts off numb and timid, also goes through an ‘awakening’ as she sheds that numbness to experience anger and frustration, to acknowledging tentatively grasping the small strands of hope in sight. Oh, hope, what a wonderful healing thing it can be. All of it was, quite simply, so very brilliantly written!
Layla AlAmmar is a writer and academic from Kuwait. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, the Red Letters St. Andrews Prose Journal, and Aesthetica Magazine, where her story “The Lagoon” was a finalist for the 2014 Creative Writing Award. She was the 2018 British Council international writer in residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. Her debut novel, The Pact We Made, was published in 2019. She has written for The Guardian and ArabLit Quarterly. She is currently pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.
Have you read Silence Is a Sense or is it on your TBR?