A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is how it all began. Long before The Silent History became a book, it was an app. Buy the app, download it to your iPhone or iPad and once a week you would receive a testimonial: an eyewitness account set in a future where a group of children are born without language. Eventually, you would receive 120 testimonials, documenting the story of the Silents and along with these a series of field accounts, which could only be unlocked when you travelled to a specific place and the GPS location in the app matched that of your iPhone.
Doesn’t that sound awesome? Doesn’t that also sound frustrating for anyone who doesn’t own an iPhone?
I don’t own an iPhone, but I heard about The Silent History a couple of years ago when it got a mention from one of my cohosts on the Unpr!ntable podcast. Mouth watering, I lived with my frustration until I spotted a print version in a Liverpool bookshop last month. I snatched it up and carried it home, finally able to enjoy the story, if disappointed that I couldn’t appreciate it in its original and highly creative form.
The Silent History tells of the Silents: people who appear perfectly normal in every respect except one. They never learn to speak or to understand human language. A medical oddity, at first the Silents get very much the same treatment as the profoundly deaf. Mainstream schools can’t cope with them. Their parents and families struggle to bond with them. They drift to the edges of society, and, like the deaf, form a culture of their own, because although the Silents can’t use regular language, they can communicate and those with language who are patient enough can also learn to speak with them.
Up to this point, The Silent History seems like a fascinating sociological thought experiment; a case study in how we marginalize those who fail to meet our standards of what is normal and also a philosophical enquiry into the nature of language and thought. Is language what makes us human? Are secret truths hidden from us because we can talk? All this is interesting, if not pulse-raising, but then the story takes a clever turn and suddenly we enter a whole new arena. What if, the writers ask, someone develops a cure for this strange lack of language? What if some of the Silent then decide they don’t want to be cured?
Suddenly we find ourselves in thriller territory, as factions form and the last untreated Silents evade those who would force them into the world of the spoken. It all leads to a climax which is both unexpected and yet completely appropriate: the best kind in other words. I was left wanting the story to continue, to know what happened next at the same time as feeling that this was exactly the right point for it to finish. Coupled with this precision-tooled plotting are cleverly drawn characters and an Atwoodesque future of backwood cults, sinister tech and a society on the verge of implosion. It all makes for a brilliant read and now finally available on pages I can actually turn.