Monday, September 24, 2012

Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence

Elizabeth Knox writes about her favourite Mahy novel

Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence is my favourite among her novels. It is a book that conducts an argument about nature and nurture, the effect of fame on families; that explores the power of speech and silence, of belief and skepticism; and that argues, explores, and demonstrates the shape-shifting nature of story. Actually, words like “argument” and “exploration” seem weak and vague in talking about this book, because all its arguments turn around on themselves, so that the book’s ideas are like a moebius strip; surface and underneath are interchangeable, and nothing comes out on top.

Hero, the protagonist, is a twelve-year-old elective mute, a girl who has stopped talking partly as a protest against the noisiness of her family, and particularly the lacerating rows between her mother, a educational psychologist, and her older sister Ginevra, who has run off four years before the story starts, and has only sent postcards to say she’s okay, but without any forwarding addresses–thus making it very clear that she doesn’t want to hear anymore what her mother has to say to or about her.

Hero and Ginevra’s mother Annie is the author of a famous book, Average/Wonderful, a book about what she learned raising her first two children–Ginevra and Athol. Annie hasn’t had quite so much time or energy for her younger children, Hero and Sap–and she was so busy proselytising on behalf of children everywhere that she was blind-sided by Ginevra’s sense of personal failure at her discovery that everything wasn’t always going to come easily to her, that she has to work at University maths, when maths had formerly been like magic, and her special thing. Ginevra’s version of the family story is as a kind of personal tragedy. Meanwhile, her brother Athol is sitting at the breakfast table, earphones in, apparently listening to music and making notes on a physics tome he carries around with him, but in fact writing down things his family say that particularly appeal to him. Athol doesn’t just see the humour in what happens around him, he also sees it as fodder for the saleable tales he’s farming, out in the back paddock of the family story, for Athol is writing scripts he hopes to sell to a soap opera.

So, this is the shape-shifting nature of story. The family story is a tragedy about a tyrannous mother and put-upon daughter. It’s an inspirational story about how children can be raised to shine. It’s a melodrama, a soap opera.

Read Elizabeth's full piece on her blog.

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