Silence Is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar, is an intense and moving story of a Syrian refugee who has escaped from war-torn Aleppo, undertaken a perilous journey through most of Europe and has finally made it to a nameless, ‘supposedly safe’ British city. The conflict back home and her traumatic escape have cost her everything, including her will to speak.
Set in a dual timeline, the story unfolds through the eyes of a young woman who remains unnamed till the very end. Living alone in an apartment, she is a ‘watcher’ who spends her time minutely observing the neighbours – an elderly couple, a fitness enthusiast, an abusive man and his family members, and a single man.
Feeling safe behind her windows, she witnesses the personal lives of her neighbours – sex, fights, struggles, happiness, tears–there’s nothing hidden from her.
There is so much of her life that she wants to share with the world–lost friends and family, a refugee’s turmoil, and the views of the world towards those seeking refuge. But when she cannot find her speaking voice and neighbours presume her to be ‘deaf,’ she opines by writing a column for an online magazine under the pseudonym of ‘The Voiceless.’ The column becomes her only way of communicating with the world. Digging into the past and relying on her memories helps her write the stories for the magazine. Her flashbacks reveal her losses, grievous escape, and struggles.
Over time, the narrator unknowingly gets involved in the lives of her neighbours. A couple of grave incidents at the local mosque and a neighbourhood store implore her to question her ‘voiceless’ identity.
Every so often we come across books which leave a long-lasting impression, either with their narration, premise or treatment. This is one such novel which leaves a mark on account of its literary impact. The premise for the story is not new–the struggles of a refugee from a war-torn nation trying to restart their life in a safer country. But what makes this novel different from others is the author’s diction and her choice of the protagonist. It adds intricate layers to the story.
It is quite challenging to narrate a story through a character who does not want to speak, and Al Ammar has done a remarkable job with it. This inability of the character lends an interesting perspective to the story. We can feel her thoughts, rather than miss her speaking voice.
The main character’s progression is extremely well done and satisfactory. However, I cannot say the same about the secondary characters. Since the author has focused mainly on the narrator, a few other characters are left under-developed. Also, I was left a bit confused at certain places involving a peek into the past. But nevertheless, this novel is a beautiful story of a woman’s trauma and her healing.
The Syrian Civil War and its aftermath is felt throughout the story. It was painful reading about Syrians struggling for survival in war-ravaged Syria and the dangerous journeys undertaken by those fleeing the war.
With an evocative narration, Al Ammar highlights the disastrous effects of trauma on a person’s memory, psyche and verbal abilities. She also exposes the bigotry and intolerance prevalent in current times.
Silence Is a Sense is a complex and fearless tale of revolution, loss and survival.
Wordsopedia Rating 4/5
|Title: Silence Is a Sense||Author: Layla AlAmmar|
|Publisher: Algonquin Books The Borough Press||Publication date: March 4th 2021|
|Genre: Fiction – Contemporary||Format: Hardcover|
|ISBN: 9780008346652||No. of Pages: 256|
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About the author
Layla AlAmmar is a writer and academic from Kuwait. She has an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, the St Andrews University 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, THE PACT WE MADE, was long listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, SILENCE IS A SENSE, was published in Spring 2021. She is currently pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.