The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy

A review of the children’s coming-of-age novel The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy.

The other side of silence is the first person story of Hero, a girl in her early teens who hasn’t spoken for the last few years. Her story flips between her ‘true’ life, where she flies through trees in the nearby woodland, imagining she is invisible, and her ‘real’ life with her family, which is full of pressure and noise, and which she likens to a popular soap opera. Early on we, the reader, realises there is something not quite right with this ‘picture perfect’ family; not only has our protagonist decided not to speak, but all of the children call their parents Mike and Annie, instead of the usual Mother and Father. The mother is a high-flying author of guides to raising successful children, and her four siblings all battle for control of this pressure to achieve in different ways. To Hero, her coping strategy is her vivid imagination and selective mutism.

At the start of the story we see Hero escaping into her imagination as she flies through trees, juxtaposed with her real life of therapy, a specialist school, family arguments and sibling rivalry in a large house within an affluent neighbourhood.

On one of Hero’s tree climbing early mornings she falls and lands into the large garden of a stately house in the woodland, and is helped by the intriguing and eccentric land owner, Miss Credence, who enjoys how Hero doesn’t talk, and employs her as a gardener. But as Hero spends more time at the Credence house, tidying and cleaning inside the property too, she become more and more curious of the locked door at the base of the stairs. Through her inquisitiveness she uncovers the shocking truth behind what Miss Credence is hiding, and quickly realises that real life can be far more terrifying than anything her own imagination could have thought up.

The Other Side of Silence is just over twenty years old, and yet I found its story extremely timeless. Its many characters are well developed and unnervingly familiar, and the darkness within the often curt and sometime brutal events of the plot, and within Hero’s own pessimistic character, are far more disturbingly realistic than any young adult novel I have read of this decade.

Hero’s story is one of a young girl whose only power in the world is to withhold her words. We, the reader, are not only told of her journey, but allowed to wonder and escape for a while inside her inventive and wondrous mind.

Hero’s feelings, and her reactions to situations, are so perfectly accurate and richly described that I found I could truly relate to what she was going through in every moment, allowing me to become fully immersed in her story.

By the end of the novel, Hero’s ‘true’ life becomes not one of an imagined fairy tale, but a real life with her family, where she has become strong and confident enough in herself to find her own voice. The narrative right at the end, switches to third person, because Hero is no longer playing a part in her own imagined tale, but is happy to live in the life that she was given, a life she now realises can be just as bitter, perilous and full of adventure as anything she could think up.

I would recommend this book to any young adults who are struggling to find their place in the world. I’d liken this book to We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, as in both we are given deeply personal first person narratives of girls who are discovering themselves and battling against pressure from over-achieving families.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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