Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find inspiration when I am compiling the list of choices for the book group. One way around this is to pick a theme and use Goodreads to find suggestions: it has an excellent, searchable List feature compiled by its users. This has the great advantage of highlighting books and authors that I have never really noticed before, and in this case it led me to find this excellent debut title.

At the outset, the story seems rather predictable: two young girls go missing and the alcoholic, abusive father of one seems a good fit for role of the typical ‘Bad Guy’. However, there is much more going on in this seemingly peaceful neighborhood and crucial events in the past are slowly revealed as the search continues. Whilst we soon learn that Petra is the girl in true danger, the mystery of Calli’s selective mutism is almost as important to revealing the truth of why these events occurred. Following the multiple POV characters, we gradually piece together the disaster that is Calli’s home-life, which becomes ever more heartbreaking as we discover the depth of the abuse that she has suffered and witnessed. I do not want to discuss important plot points, but while some are pretty obvious, others are skillfully hidden until the answers are revealed.

Looking at the more negative reviews for this title, I saw that many people are highly critical of Calli’s mother, Toni. They see cowardice in her failure to protect herself and her children from Griff’s abuse and believe that she should have left long before this tragic event unfolds. We thought that this was a rather simplistic way to view another person’s life. It is clear that Toni was very much in love with Griff when they first set up home and that she knows that sometimes he can be a great father. She also knows that he is dangerous once he has consumed a certain number of beers, and will remove the children from the home when he gets to that point. We concluded that his job in Alaska also contributed to her inertia: because he only returned for short periods, she could always see a return to ‘normal’ in the near future and so was never pushed far enough to feel the need to leave him.

Perhaps more deserving of criticism was Louis, the police officer. His past relationship with Toni occupied far more of his attention than seemed reasonable in this situation. He and the other local police were rather lax in their investigation of the scene of the abduction and in finding some of the prime suspects. We were not sure if this was normal operating procedure, but I would have wanted someone else searching for my lost child.

Another point of criticism for us was the historical treatment of Calli’s mutism. Apart from Mr Wilson, the school counselor, nobody, not even her mother, uses writing or drawing as a mode of communication. The school is particularly appalling in its attitude to her, including one incident where she is punished for refusing to speak and Petra is punished for trying to communicate for her friend. With regard to Toni, we could understand that she might have been unwilling to push too deeply into the reasons behind the mutism, because she would then have to confront the unpleasantness of her relationship with Griff. However, we were generally appalled that nobody really expressed concern about what trauma had caused Calli’s psychological damage.

Indeed, the writer emphasized this damage by recounting Calli’s chapters in the third person, past tense. All the other POV chapters were given in the first person, present, so that we had a constant reminder of how badly Calli had disassociated with the world around her. It made it seem as if she were viewing her life as an observer, rather than a participant, as a way of defending her true self from the pain of experiencing her real life. Remembering that she was only seven years old made this all the more painful.    

This is a compelling exploration of domestic abuse and how different people respond to a horrific crisis. The group thoroughly recommends it.

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