Silence for the Dead
The renewed interest in recent years in all things interwar and post-war means that those who used beg for more cultural artifacts from 1914-1950s need beg no longer. I, personally, am having a blast on the audiovisual front — not a fan of Downton Abbey, but I love Parade’s End and Foyle’s War. I’ve been having less luck on the book front, for whatever reason, but I do like Simone St. James’ books, and I like her latest the best.
It’s not hard for me to pinpoint why Silence for the Dead is my favourite so far. A) The awful flapper fashion of the 20s hadn’t yet taken over (and I really don’t like 20s clothing – except the cloches. They’re cool). B) As a historian, I love the war periods, and Ms. St. James puts a lot of emphasis on the psychological trauma of returning soldiers; in setting the story in 1919, the immediate spectre of WWI has not yet been superficially masked by the hectic hedonism of the 1920s. C) The attention given to returning veterans means less attention for literal, actual ghosts haunting the house, which admittedly aren’t my preferred literary ingredients. Nothing against them, but … meh.
Because of the more diverse elements, the story proceeds at a more deliberate pace than the breakneck speed at which The Haunting of Maddy Clare hurled itself. I like it. I get to spend more time with Kitty Weekes, a young girl on the run and who has impersonated an acquaintance to hide away at Portis House, a hospital for the “insane”, shell-shocked soldiers. Kitty doesn’t know squat about nursing, but she’s resourceful, she’s smart, she keeps her head down, Portis House is in the middle of nowhere, and they’re desperate for help. Suits her just fine, and as a reader it suits me equally well to have much of the book’s attention focused on the occupants at Portis House. We get tragic, detailed portraits of the soldiers, although the eventual hero, Jack Yates, is naturally shrouded in some secrecy before the readers can determine with certainty that he is, in fact, the hero.
The down side to the book’s pacing is that I put it down more frequently than I would have liked, if only because I had trouble telling the nurses apart, and because it cuts into the pacing, and interest, of the paranormal aspects. But otherwise Silence for the Dead was a refreshing change from books that hurtle the reader from kidnapping to theft to ghostly appearances to dog snatching to political uprising. Or whatever. It was also lovely to read a story that does not take short cuts. There is a clear respect for the time period and its realities. Not all soldiers are reunited with their families. Not all soldiers will be “healed” eventually. Not all ghosts are laid to rest, literal and figurative. And abuse begets abuse, as we see in one of the subplots — I see no cathartic comeuppance or reconciliation in the near future. But in the midst of a dark time there can be hope and happiness, even when forged in a hospital that acts more as a mental asylum.
I find reading about the World War periods to be a conflicting experience sometimes. For my generation, the two wars are remote enough to exist as far-off history, but recent enough to live on in family and friends and feel real. In other words, it’s almost an ideally “safe” historical period to indulge in, when there was a semblance of right and wrong, when you can dream that love can endure after being forged in such traumatic circumstances — and when the circumstances take place almost one hundred years ago. No one writes happy endings during the Vietnam War, after all, or the Rwandan genocide. But I found that Silence for the Dead strikes a respectable balance: haunting and terrifying enough to remind me that nothing has changed, and that ghosts will remain, but optimistic enough that I remember things could change.