Book Review: Silence
“[Effing] desert blowtorch sun lifts off the horizon, eye of Allah, 106 degrees . . . .” No way can you tell from the opening words of this disturbingly violent prologue set in the Samarra desert in Iraq in 2006 that William Carpenter’s new novel Silence will evolve into an unusual love story set in rural Maine and its coastal waters. The surprise comes from the degree to which the story’s two totally different young protagonists, who barely meet, intuit in each other a common ideal about how to live with loss that leads them eventually to sacrifice for that ideal. It’s a story Carpenter slowly creates, of diverse worlds: 9/11, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Thoreau, architecture, archaeology, home town working-class life, camping in the wild, small plane aviation, family, heritage, a same-sex relationship, and most of all the beauty of an untouched privately owned island, here called Amber. That’s a lot of diversity but he brings it all together in a realistic and moving narrative.
In the prologue Nick Colonna sees too late what is about to happen to him and his two buddies when an Arab street dog limps toward them, its stomach implanted with an explosive. He awakens – after how long? - not knowing where he is, but he cannot hear. Or speak. His buddies are dead. Nick now suffers from intrusive hallucinations that replay Mohammad Atta’s crashing American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.
Now back from Iraq, and death, he also recalls intense bonding with his former girlfriend on Amber Island. She left him, and though his family is loving and supportive, he cannot stay with them. He slips out one night to Amber to live in a decrepit hut deep in the forest with only bare necessities. And a copy of Thoreau’s Walden given to him by his old high school English teacher, who, to divert him, takes him flying one day. Most of the narrative proceeds in the present tense – Nick cannot manage time or direction. He has survival skills but also survivor guilt.
On Amber he hunts, fishes, explores, one day coming across burial artifacts from an indigenous people who he learns lived on the island 6,000 years ago. His sense of the past widens, and deepens, as does his admiration of David H. as he calls Thoreau. Pages from Walden, highlighted by his former teacher, are strewn around the hut.
His own solitude and silence are interrupted one rainy night, however, when Julia Fletcher, the angry, headstrong youngest child of the recently deceased wealthy owner of Amber island, arrives at his door. She’s come to Amber to take pictures of what soon will vanish once construction begins on a fancy resort. Though her beloved father had built a maquette of a main building, spectacular glass tower and all, he refused finally to despoil the pristine landscape and construct it. Julia, who adored him, and reveres the island’s rugged loneness, feels his loss more now that her mother and siblings are pushing ahead with the commercial project – even, ironically, hiring Nick to be the island caretaker and a construction worker. He’s a perfectionist in his work. It’s something to do. he can stay on the island. Carpenter is too skilled a writer to contrive an easy resolution where Nature as refuge and custodian of history becomes the salvation of damaged souls brought together over death. But how he concludes this impressively imagined story will both startle and haunt, with an event that will evoke shock and awe but also foster contemplation.