September 23, 2014

BY ITS COVER | The Weight of Silence

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By NATALIE TSAY

As an avid reader of Heather Gudenkauf, I have more than a few things to say about The Weight of Silence, her debut novel about two presumed-to-be-abducted girls, Calli Clark (who hasn’t spoken in four years) and Petra Gregory. By its cover, you can infer that it will be a chilling, gritty telling of a parent’s worst nightmare. And it is, but maybe not to the extent that the cover would suggest.

First hooked by These Things Hidden, I’ve become a fan of Gudenkauf’s work because of her adept, seamless way of revealing the truth in a situation until the end finally comes at you with full force. In The Weight of Silence, Antonia Clark and Martin and Fielda Gregory must work with Deputy Sheriff Louis (Antonia’s first love) to find out who has taken their daughters. Set in a tight-knit wooded community with an old, unsolved child murder looming ominously overhead, the novel is a prototypical small-town mystery rife with complicated familial relations and the poignant loss of innocence. Gudenkauf certainly keeps you guessing with red herring after red herring, but the mystery of “whodunit” is not the main attraction. While I found it semi-predictable, I thought Gudenkauf did a fantastic job of building suspense and slowly unfolding the narrative.

Filled with clean prose free of frivolities, the chapters flow effortlessly between the distinct voices of Antonia, Antonia’s son Ben, Calli, Deputy Sheriff Louis, Petra and Martin. Gudenkauf’s writing is fluid and easy to read, but it isn’t bare. At the heart of the novel is the idea that silence speaks louder than words — the no-fuss language only enhances this essential theme. However, I had a few minor character qualms. Martin, in particular, was tricky. I couldn’t relate to him in the beginning — he was too formal to be believable, in my opinion. However, his professional demeanor disintegrates as his desperation to find his daughter heightens and he resorts to thinking in rapid bursts instead of carefully constructed sentences. Here, Gudenkauf’s pure prose shines in its ability to illustrate how tragedy and unadulterated dread can bring any parent (or man in general) to the brink of reason. Stuffy as he may be, Martin frantically belies all of his morals — he’ll do anything to bring his daughter back, and this recurring theme in contemporary fiction is both terrifying and relatable.

One of my favorite things to read and write about is the complexity of a family structure. The Weight of Silence is undoubtedly centered on family and what it means to be part of one (especially if it’s dysfunctional). I found this to be the main appeal of the novel because the mystery was honestly kind of predictable if you picked up on the hints. In addition, you know in the beginning how Calli ended up in the woods, and despite her father’s alcoholism, there’s no sense of danger in the fact that he dragged her there. No matter how rough and tough Griff proved to be (spoiler alert: He’s not guilty), I never found him convincingly threatening. The mystery of where Petra went, however, is much more unsettling because the girls did not disappear together. Despite the presence of sickening subjects such as child abuse and rape, The Weight of Silence wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d anticipated it would be. Don’t get me wrong — I really enjoyed it; it just didn’t blow me out of the water. Still, it’s extremely well written. If you like a novel with interesting characters, unconditional love and friendship, small-town charm and unspeakable crimes, The Weight of Silence might be just the book for you.

Natalie Tsay is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at nyt5@cornell.edu. By its Cover runs alternate Wednesdays.

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