Book review: 'The Silent Land' by Graham Joyce

Los Angeles Times

With TV's "Lost" having found its conclusion, and its successor on the pop culture landscape still missing in its own right, fans longing for a mysterious and mystical world to explore might consider visiting "The Silent Land," a tautly rendered new novel by British writer Graham Joyce.

Set in the Pyrenees mountains around Chamonix, France, the story follows Zoe and Jake, a thirtysomething married couple from Britain splurging on a ski getaway that quickly turns disastrous when the two are caught in an avalanche. Though both escape in a description harrowingly detailed enough to unnerve claustrophobic readers, they emerge to find every living thing surrounding them has vanished, seemingly evacuated with shocking speed and efficiency.

Cut off from all communications and determined to get off the mountain before the next avalanche strikes, the couple soon discover their new world follows perplexing rules. Food abandoned by an apparently hasty hotel staff never spoils, candles burn for days and every attempt to leave brings them back to the deserted village where they started with increasingly unsettling effect. The question soon becomes whether the couple truly has survived the avalanche, and it's one Joyce resolves before the novel's halfway point. Or does he?

Facing an apparent eternity together in Eden-like isolation, the couple eventually try to enjoy a permanent vacation, indulging in top shelf wines, idyllic skiing and an empty hotel to satisfy their suddenly accelerated libido. All the while, Joyce ratchets up the tension as Zoe keeps uncovering haunting details. Disembodied voices ripple along a frozen creek, mysterious black birds haunt a would-be getaway car and "real world" visions of a still-bustling scene in the hotel lobby generate enough nightmarish unease to rival the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King's "The Shining." These fleeting encounters along with an unharmed yet still secret pregnancy keep Zoe and the reader guessing just where the couple have landed while her husband, intriguingly, accepts his fate.

Unleashing a torrent of metaphors referencing rot and religious imagery, Joyce nearly overwhelms the book's quietly creepy atmosphere. In one instance Jake, a sworn atheist, describes wine as "evoking the Cardinal's red robe and the Devil's furnace." A joyfully sweet reunion with a dog from Jake's childhood flirts with sending the novel into the mawkishness of the 1998 afterlife film "What Dreams May Come," but the comparison disappears quickly as Joyce fills his "place where laws of physics and laws of dreaming meet" with elastic shifts in time, masked figures in the shadows and garbled calls to Zoe's cellphone from places unknown.

A story like this is often only as good as its puzzle, but Joyce remembers that such things are worth unraveling only if you're invested in the characters. For all of "The Silent Land's" surreal chills and heavy-footed nods to spirituality, Jake and Zoe's relationship thoughtfully remains at the forefront with sharp banter and finely drawn moments of mutual reflection that carry an endearing grace. An ongoing description of lives amounting to a shared memories grows especially poignant as the world around them grows more uncertain.

The book can be over the top in spots, and it backs into a few clichés but these are hazards of the neighborhood after big questions regarding life, death and love are in play. As engaging as a twisted fireside yarn and paced almost as quickly, "The Silent Land" doesn't necessarily tell a new story, but it tells it with enough heartfelt panache to ensure its mystery — and its ultimately hopeful reflection of ours — never ceases to matter.

chris.barton@latimes.com

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