Tuesday, May 26, 2020

"The Silence"

Susan Allott is from the UK but spent part of her twenties in Australia, desperately homesick but trying to make Sydney her home. She completed the Faber Academy course in 2017, during which she started writing The Silence. She now lives in south London with her two children and her very Australian husband.

Allott applied the Page 69 Test to The Silence and reported the following:
Page 69 of The Silence is the opening of a new chapter, formatted with the heading ‘Sydney 1967’ pushing the text almost halfway down the page. What follows, in around 200 words, is a relatively quiet moment in which Steve returns home from work and Mandy hastily stubs out her cigarette, opening the back door to release the smoke. She reflects: ‘Cigarettes were all she could think about since she’d told Steve she was going to pack them in … Another thing to lie about was all it was.’ She observes that he is singing to himself as he enters the house, and considers this a good sign. ‘He’d pulled himself together. She knew where she was with this version of her husband: upbeat, noisy, tone deaf. Long may it last.’ It’s not a dramatic encounter. Steve walks into the kitchen, puts his lunchbox on the table and asks Mandy what’s for dinner. But Mandy’s internal monologue suggests all is not as it seems. She is lying to Steve about more than the cigarettes. And he is not always the upbeat man who has walked through the door; there are different versions of him.

My first thought on applying the page 69 test to The Silence was that it might not hook a reader who knew nothing about the premise of the book. The scene is only potent when we know that Mandy’s disappearance is imminent, and that it will take 30 years for this disappearance to be investigated. Assuming the reader has not read the blurb, what they might take from page 69 is a taste of Mandy’s voice, her dry humour, her restlessness. The scene also provides a telling snapshot of this marriage: Mandy has cooked a stew; she is stationed in the kitchen for Steve’s return. But we sense he is grating on her with his tuneless singing, his disapproval of her smoking. Her fondness has a whisper of contempt.

Page 69 does provide an insight into the era Mandy inhabits, the stifling experience of the Australian 1960s housewife, although the deep misogyny of that time is perhaps not apparent without reading on. It’s a lot to ask of these short paragraphs, but I like to think the reader might be convinced by these characters, their relationship and their world. And as an introduction to a book about secrets hidden in plain sight (like the smell of a recently extinguished cigarette perhaps) this interaction between Steve and Mandy is subtly on point.

On reflection, I’m persuaded by the page 69 test. It’s not flawless, especially as the format of a book and the size of font will vary the entry point. Page 69 falls almost 25% in to the US hardback edition of The Silence, and perhaps that percentage offers a better guide. The opening paragraphs of a novel are much agonised-over, but by one quarter of the way in the prose should be less self-conscious, the characters established; the world they inhabit should feel concrete, grounded in place and time. I think The Silence passed the test, but I also think I know far too much about my own book to be a fair judge. I’d love to know what a reader with fresh eyes might make of it.
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--Marshal Zeringue