Let’s take a look at Heather Gudenkauf’s fabulous The Weight of Silence from a writer’s perspective. It is Number 73 on The Bestseller Code Challenge list.
This post contains spoilers.
The Weight of Silence
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Summary: Two young girls, Calli and her friend Petra, disappear from their homes early one hot August morning. The tension builds as their families struggle to find them. Will they be too late?
The Weight of Silence is Heather Gudenkauf’s debut novel. Some of her newer titles include Not a Sound and Missing Pieces.
These days many novels have the label (or mislabel) “suspense,” but The Weight of Silence is a pitch perfect example of the genre (see explanation in previous post). Before we’re too far into the story, we learn a little bit about how each girl goes missing. Because of that, now we are glued to the pages as the tension mounts. Will they be found before something worse happens?
All the textbooks in the future should have The Weight of Silence under the definition of suspense. Yes, it’s that good.
The chapters are named for and narrated by different characters, mostly in the first person. For example, the prologue is narrated by Antonia, who the mother of one of the missing girls. In the first chapter we meet Calli, a seven-year-old girl who refuses to speak. With one exception, the author tells her story in tight third person, which reflects Calli not having a voice.
Calli’s best friend and neighbor Petra Gregory is the focus of the next chapter, again told in first person. In later chapters we meet Petra’s father Martin, Deputy Sheriff Lewis (who has a history with Antonia), and Calli’s older brother Ben.
In contrast to the forceful voices of A Day Late and A Dollar Sort , the differences between the voices of Gudenkauf’s characters are much more subtle. A few reviewers have called the author out for not developing clearer lines between the characters. but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, writers are taught to make each character sound unique. From a reader’s perspective, however, it might be easier to read if the text has less jarring shifts. After all, at some level we know one author is telling the entire story. Do we really need vastly divergent voices to be able to suspend disbelief? What do you think?
Gudenkauf does an excellent job of giving the reader a sense of place. The Weight of Silence is set in Willow Creek, Iowa (Check this cool map of the settings of all of Gudenkauf’s novels). The families are isolated, far away from town. The girls are lost in the surrounding forest, which adds to the ominous atmosphere. It is a hot August day and the reader can feel the oppressive heat. Each detail of the setting ratchets up the tension.
Public Domain photo via VisualHunt
There’s so much to discuss about this novel it is hard to know where to start. I’m going to mention a couple that stood out for me that haven’t been mentioned in a lot of other reviews.
Right in the beginning the details of Calli’s school life caught my eye. For example, a child who didn’t speak at school would have a terrible time asking to go to the restroom, and “urinary accidents” would be a forgone conclusion. I remember my son’s first grade teacher complaining that her classroom was farthest from the restrooms and how many of her students put off asking to go until it was too late. It was not surprising to read Heather Gudenkauf spent many years as an elementary school teacher. Those incidental details helped make the story ring true.
In addition, I liked how the author chose have Petra’s father Martin narrate rather than Petra’s mother. The contrast between the two fathers worked nicely. Because Martin tended to act impulsively, he drove some of the later conflict, as well. His viewpoint of how devastated Petra’s mother was gave the reader perspective.
As a reader I found this book hard to put down. The suspense pulled me in and made me want to find out what happened on the next page, then the next, then the next. Resist the temptation to skim, however, because Gudenkauf has packed in many good things that build on each other. Because it succeeded in pulling me out of the writer’s perspective, which is a rare thing these days, it is worth taking a deeper look at this author’s bag of writing tricks.
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What are we reading next?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.
The next book is number 72. The Marriage Bargain by Jennifer Probst (2012) – Discussion begins November 27, 2017