Days in the History of Silence – Merethe Lindstrøm (translated by Anne Bruce)

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I was the one who let him in.

Later I called him the intruder, but he did not break in. He rang the doorbell as anyone at all might have done, and I opened the door. It unsettles me when I think about it. Really that could be what bothers me the most. He rang the doorbell, and I opened the door.

So mundane.

That Days in the History of Silence begins in this way is a little misleading. Nothing much comes of this intruder, although the way in which Lindstrøm has her narrator Eva relate the incident leaves you feeling anxious for her fate and that of her then young daughters.

But the intruders in Eva and her husband Simon’s lives are ghosts from the past that they’ve never spoken to their children about. The events that they’ve hidden will be forced to the forefront by Simon’s current condition and the sacking of the cleaner their daughters insisted they needed to help them.

Simon is suffering from dementia. Their daughter, Helena, is determined that he needs to go into a home. At the moment he goes to a day care centre twice a week. For Eva, though, it is not the dementia that is the biggest issue for her, it is that Simon’s stopped speaking:

Several times I have remained standing in this parking lot, like a mythological figure, filled with doubt, this is the border between the underworld and our own world, I walk across the little stretch of asphalt, with Simon in the corridors inside, if I turn around now, he will disappear forever. I need to tell this to someone, how it feels, how it is so difficult to live with someone who suddenly becomes silent. It is not simply the feeling that he is no longer there. It is the feeling you are not either.

 

Eva connects Simon’s silence with the dismissal of Marija, the cleaner. Marija had become more than someone who came and looked after the house, they had become friendly enough to invite her for dinner and to support her with her daughter when she decided to leave her abusive boyfriend. It is evident that Marija must have done something terrible to destroy the relationship they had, it is something that won’t be revealed by the reader until late into the novel though.

What is revealed earlier is that Simon and his family spent the Second World War in hiding.

…the rooms were tiny like boxes with doors, a playhouse where it was rarely possible to play…While they lived in this condition that has to be called imprisonment, Simon told me, they had to remain quiet. Silence was imposed on them, him, his brother, his parents and the two other people who stayed there…But if one of them, Simon or his brother, was angry and for example began to scream, a handkerchief was held over his mouth, and the feeling of being smothered by this handkerchief, used less as a punishment than through sheer necessity, prevented him from repeating it. Simon recounted that he could still awaken from the feeling of being inside that handkerchief, covering his mouth or being held as a gag.

It’s easy to see a connection her between Simon’s suffering as a child and his decision to shut down as an adult. Eva also reveals odd behaviour as the novel progresses, again this behaviour is linked to her secret, one that is quite different to Simon’s.

What I found most interesting about Days in the History of Silence was its focus on the people who’ve kept secrets and – presumably – won’t reveal them before their death. It made a change from the vast number of novels that focus on those who discover secrets following a relative’s death and gave two credible insights as to how retaining this knowledge might manifest itself in a person’s behaviour as they age and the secret seems to bear more weight.

In keeping with its title, Days in the History of Silence is a quietly powerful novel.

0 thoughts on “Days in the History of Silence – Merethe Lindstrøm (translated by Anne Bruce)

  1. Mutism is a fascinating, often impenetrable, misunderstood theme in real life, something I could almost write a book about myself, having a daughter who suffered from selective mutism from the age of 4 until 10 years old. I like the sound of this book, intriguing indeed.

      • The difficulty was mostly with the school system and trying to make people aware of the condition (which is as common as autism) and how to deal with silent children. Outside school you wouldn’t know she suffered, it was only inside the school and other institutional environments. I only feel relief now, especially as others come to me for help who are facing similar challenges, there is a supportive parent network thank goodness, as it took me years to even learn that the condition had a name and that there are books written about it, and a program of intervention to follow. Thank goodness for the English language, the poor French are struggling to translate the books and catch up.

        I do have intentions to write a short book about it, now that the anxiety over dealing with it has dissipated. The challenges of parenting! 🙂

  2. This sounds so good but I’m wary of reading another book that features a dementia sufferer after Elizabeth is Missing which was a good book but the dementia aspect was hard for me to read as someone close to me has this…. I love the quotes you’ve chosen.