Wildlife photographer Matt has been working in a tiny isolated village in the wilderness when his wife Yasmin and ten year old daughter Ruby are told that he is presumed dead in a horrific fire that has wiped out the entire village. The police have stopped searching for him but Yasmin doesn’t believe he’s dead. Yasmin and Ruby set out on a dangerous and terrifying journey into the Alaskan countryside to find him, where the darkness, ice and risk of hypothermia are constant. But the pair soon realise that the terrain isn’t the only danger around – someone is following them.
Rosamund creates a beautifully evocative depiction of the bleak and frozen surroundings that will have you resisting the urge to shiver as you read. Told through the changing perspectives of both Yasmin and Ruby, we gain different understandings of their experiences throughout the book and learn a lot about their mother/daughter relationship. Ruby really is the standout character for us, causing several laugh out loud moments and charming us with her wonderful personality. And her challenges as a deaf character offer a thought-provoking insight into life without sound.
‘Like a breath of icy air, this relentlessly tense thriller is also a child’s-eye family drama like none other. Not since Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow have I shivered like this.’ – Emma Donoghue
‘I loved The Quality of Silence. It was scary, suspenseful and so exquisitely, evocatively written I often found myself shivering as if I were there in Alaska with Ruby and her mother. It was everything you want in a wonderful novel.’ – Liane Moriarty
With such evocative scenery and well-rounded characters, we caught up with Rosamund to find out more about the inspiration behind her latest book.
The Inspiration Behind The Quality of Silence
It’s strange and surprising trying to retrace the mental and imaginative steps that resulted in this novel. I hadn’t consciously been aware of the influences and experiences that coalesced together. I was only aware that suddenly, driving down the motorway to London, the novel arrived in my head almost fully formed. It was going to be about language and silence and the vast winter landscape of Alaska. It would be about a white world in darkness, with a girl on the cusp of growing up and a journey into an endless polar night with something terrible hidden at the heart of it.
Looking back, I think that the novel started with footage of snow blowing across the Alaskan arctic tundra. The sound was eerily violent. In the foreground was a herd of musk oxen, ice freezing into their coats; dark shapes in the blizzard. An arctic wolf bayed and a calf was separated from the herd. The snow-covered landscape stretched off the frame and, I imagined, for thousands of miles around. It was in every way different from what I could see sitting at my desk in England. And gradually, the extraordinarily beautiful and brutal arctic land stole into my imagination. I discovered that a night beginning in November lasts until January, that temperatures plummet to minus sixty with hurricane-force polar winds. But there were bright spots of beauty and subtlety – the wing-prints of a ptarmigan in snow and white arctic hares; a place where a creature’s fur or feathers changed to match the land and skies. I knew that I wanted to write about northern Alaska and also knew that this white world in darkness wouldn’t just be the setting for a story but would be a part of the story itself.
As I read more, I was captivated by Inupiat people, who live in Alaska’s north slope. I admired their fortitude and resilience and in our throw-away culture I was humbled by their respectfulness towards the land, leaving it unaltered for future generations as had their ancestors. It was while I was reading about Inupiat people, that fracking first edged into the UK news. Our need to get at shale oil by breaking apart the land was a head-on collision with the Inupiat people’s way of life. Researching further, I read that a company had bought rights to frack huge areas under the Alaskan tundra. I saw again that image of a white world in darkness but now I saw it defaced by human vandalism and I knew that if I wrote a story about northern Alaska, the dark heart of this novel would be fracking.
The heroine, Ruby, is ten years old, deaf and the main voice in the book. At my primary school, there was a girl who was deaf and who was horribly isolated. I myself became deaf in one ear at primary school and struggled with school until diagnosis. But in our modern age deafness and communication are surely different. We use the written word more than we ever have before in texts, emails, tweets, face-booking, snapchat and a myriad of other social media. In these conversations the person who is deaf is as vocal, fluent and loud as a hearing person. One of the most extraordinary things that has come from writing this novel is to discover that my audio agent, Alice Lutyens, who has sold audio rights for my three novels, is deaf. We communicate by emails and until she read The Quality of Silence I had no idea.
In this story the emotional climax is not Ruby speaking with her mouth for the first time but when her mother learns to hear Ruby’s written voice.
The strangest thing for me with partial hearing loss is disorientation because hearing places us in the world in a specific way. For me everything happens to my left sound-wise. My right hand side is a permanent quiet blank. I was interested in exploring that blank.
While I was reading about Inupiat people, I discover that the Inuit, of which Inupiat are a part, have had sign-language as part of their regular language for hundreds of years, a language which has been used by hearing as well as non-hearing people. Among some communities the prevalence of congenital hearing loss is far higher than in the rest of the population. Alaska and Ruby felt a natural fit for one another.
I chose the age of ten for Ruby, because when she turns eleven in just a few months time she must leave primary school. I knew that the journey for Ruby would be real and dangerous, but also symbolic as she ventures further towards adulthood, without the option of turning back.
Finally I had the two adults of my story, Yasmin and Matt who would literally and figuratively find one another during the novel. I have a map of northern Alaska pinned above my desk and I could pinpoint the geographical journey Yasmin takes to find Matt, but at the same time I wanted to use the darkness to disorientate her, to not give her any markers, so that she can journey back in time to discover the self she’d lost. I made her an astrophysicist partly because I find the stars fascinating and it was an excuse to peer through telescopes in the name of research, but I also wanted Yasmin to view the world as a planet and to give a global perspective on fracking the Earth. Matt is a wildlife cameraman because through him I could introduce the reader both to the extraordinary wildlife in winter and the Inupiat people who live there.
So to cut a long back-story short, I set off writing the book wanting it to be about a last frozen wilderness; about violent greed and altruism; about different ways of listening and of living and about a child journeying towards an adult world whose hands are her voice. Driving on the motorway to London I checked my driver’s mirror and wondered about the lights behind me.