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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Heather Gudenkauf

Mira, 2009

Filed under: Literary, Mystery

The Weight of Silence follows a relatively simple mystery, at the center of which is seven-year-old Calli Clark, who hasn’t spoken in three years. When Calli’s father drunkenly grabs her and drags her into the woods early one morning, the entire town sets about trying to figure out what happened to her (and her friend, Petra, who also wandered off that morning).

Most of the book deals with the people in Calli’s and Petra’s lives, and the relationships between them, as they appear in the light of crisis. When Gudenkauf tries to formulate a plot, though, it works for a little while, but eventually fizzles out in a two-fold ending full of underwhelming misdirection.

Silence features some phenomenal suspense and some engaging characters, but the actual mystery is lackluster. Most of the time it’s a real nail-biter of a book, even if all you wind up with is ragged nails.

Gudenkauf tells this story from half a dozen different perspectives: Calli; her brother; her mother, Toni; Petra; Petra’s father; and a deputy sheriff named Louis who has a history with Calli’s mom. For the novel’s first half, this structure works well. We get interweaving, nuanced relationships: Louis and Toni’s jilted young love, Petra and Calli’s uniquely close friendship, and Petra’s father’s personal history tinged with sadness and redemption.

Halfway through, when this routine is starting to wear thin, the plot twists, and it seems like the second half will use those tense relationships to craft a thriller. To a certain extent, that plan succeeds. There’s struggle, suspicion, violence, a possible murderer on the loose, and (for me, at least) an all-consuming hatred for one particular character. Unfortunately, that last part is where the novel begins to break down.

The character I hated is Griff Clark, Calli’s father. He’s a two-dimensional monster. Not only is Griff alcoholic and abusive, he is entirely oblivious to his actions. He will, for instance, beat up his son, and then blame his son for getting beat up. Sometimes he screams at his family in public. His son hates him, and can’t wait for him to leave and go back to his job in Alaska. And his wife, Calli’s mom, has stayed with him for more than twelve years, while he’s been alcoholic and abusive the entire time. In the meantime, the love of her life, the deputy sheriff Louis, is a kind and good man, unhappily married, who wants to be there for her, and with her.

Maybe that’s the way it really happens with battered women, I’m certainly no expert. But in a novel, that has to be handled in a different way. Either Griff has to have some kind of charm or charisma (Calli’s mom tells us he does, but he never actually displays even a hint), or another character has to explicitly tell us that a battered woman really will stay with an abusive monster despite his complete lack of humanity or conscience or remorse.

Without either of those qualifiers, the narrative effect of Griff’s monsterism was that I never cared who the real evildoer was. For most of the book, I just wanted Griff to be severely punished. Which I guess Gudenkauf anticipated, because the real evildoer is never the point. That mystery gets solved, eventually, with a shrug, and it’s the worst part of the book.

While rooting against Griff is compelling and suspenseful, it’s not a mystery. And ultimately it seems like Gudenkauf can’t quite decide whether to be a mystery writer or a literary characterist. So, the two sides don’t quite meet in the middle, and the relationships she builds so painstakingly never quite mean anything to the hamfisted plot.

However: Griff aside, I was riveted, up until the last ten pages. Gudenkauf’s characters are mostly believable and her prose is strong and transparent—in other words, it serves the story and rarely shows off or gets in the way, which is harder than it looks. The big problem, bigger than Griff, is that ending. It’s as if Gudenkauf couldn’t find a satisfying way to tie together all the disparate puzzle pieces she spends so long sawing out.

So she doesn’t. Nothing, in the end, really has to do with anything else, and the several plotlines never congeal. During the ending, too, all the perspectives become a bit too much for Gudenkauf to handle. They start creating pacing problems, especially when the plot splits in two and Gudenkauf keeps cutting away from the active, tense storyline to fill us in on the boring, non-time-critical one.

Gudenkauf’s characters, prose, and knack for suspense point to a talent that bears watching. But until she figures out how to hang all that on a good plot, her mysteries won’t be satisfying. Silence is a one-night-stand of a book: it’ll keep you up late and it’s pretty fun while it lasts, but the next morning you won’t have much to show for it.

Similar books: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold; Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Edgar impact: Like The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, this novel has its share of good features, but a lackluster ending leaves a sour taste. Still, the suspense Silence creates is enough to make it a contender in Best First Novel By An American Author.