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The sound of silence
on 10 February 2009
In middle age, the feminist author, Sara Maitland, lives on her own for the first time, and surprises herself by falling in love with the vast silences of solitude. Over the subsequent decade, she sets out to explore her new love, spending time on her own in some of Britain's wild places. A Book of Silence is partly an account of her experiences of silence and partly a cultural history of silence.
In essence we have two books that are competing for our attention. Maitland's accounts of her own experiences are fine and moving, but she intersperses these with her sprawling discourse on the culture of silence. Maitland loves quiet, but gives her readers no peace for she is endlessly qualifying her own, often moving, experiences with those of others. There's nothing wrong with setting out to explore others' experiences of silence, but she's actually a not a great guide, seemingly including everything she happened upon in her research, when had she cut the book by 100 pages it would have been much better for it.
What really frustrated me about A Book of Silence is that so many passages are exceptionally well written and Maitland's skills as a writer are abundantly obvious. She writes of her admiration for the mountaineer and author, Joe Simpson, and yet in many ways her accounts of the silences of Skye and Galloway are as evocative as Simpson's works, many of which are considered modern classics. What we want is more of this, more of the author, and less of rambling, sprawling pseudo-academic discourse on silence.
Because she seems so preoccupied with others' accounts she also leaves the reader asking many questions: How did the break up of her marriage (which is skirted over) impact on her search for silence? What did her children make of her life choices? The problem with this sort of book is that you can't be selective over what you reveal to your reader: you either show them everything or nothing.
This is, in many ways, a good book, but with more stringent editing and disciplined writing it could have been great.