March 16, 2021
A young woman sits in her apartment, watching the small daily dramas of her neighbors across the way. She is an outsider, a mute voyeur, safe behind her windows, and she sees it all—the sex, the fights, the happy and unhappy families. Journeying from her war-torn Syrian homeland to this unnamed British city has traumatized her into silence, and her only connection to the world is the column she writes for a magazine under the pseudonym “the Voiceless,” where she tries to explain the refugee experience without sensationalizing it—or revealing anything about herself.
Gradually, though, the boundaries of her world expand. She ventures to the corner store, to a bookstore and a laundromat, and to a gathering at a nearby mosque. And it isn’t long before she finds herself involved in her neighbors’ lives. When an anti-Muslim hate crime rattles the neighborhood, she has to make a choice: Will she remain a voiceless observer, or become an active participant in a community that, despite her best efforts, is quickly becoming her own?
Layla AlAmmar, a Kuwaiti-American writer and brilliant student of Arab literature, delivers here a complex and fluid book about memory, revolution, loss, and safety. Most of all, Silence is a Sense reminds us just how fundamental human connection is to survival.
The “voiceless” is a young Syrian refugee who lives in a flat in an English city, watches her neighbors through her window, judging their lives, sometimes interacting but always trying to remain on the periphery, looking out at them while looking in at herself. Layla AlAmmar has created a powerful and poetic novel, exploring what it means to be a refugee, alone and isolated.
While AlAmmar herself is not a refugee, she has given a voice to many who left their homeland during conflict, portraying the experiences they encountered as they crossed a sea, moved through countries where it was obvious they were unwanted, and how vulnerable a young woman, traveling alone, was in these circumstances. Even as she comes to England, she discovers that hate and prejudice are thick, even to people who’ve always called England their home.
Your humanity and my humanity are the same. We are of one being, one value. All of us equal, all of us the same.
AlAmmar’s writing is beautiful, her imagery inviting, the rhythm of her prose excellent. She weaves her story non-linearly, exploring the narrator’s past, the narrator’s trek, and slowly shows that the narrator has not been entirely isolated, which comes as surprising when the reader discovers that she has been involved with at least one of her neighbors.
The narrator’s story is gripping, emotional. As she shares her journey from Syria as The Voiceless the responding comments are harsh and, unfortunately, unsurprising. “Her story is fiction.” “No one could have gone through all of that.” Even her editor, Josie, who initially wanted more of a descriptive story of The Voiceless’ journey sans politics, back steps because suddenly she’s been introduced to the unpleasant in her comfortable little world. But there is more unpleasantness to come.
I would suggest that for most of us, Silence Is a Sense is a necessary read for we have little understanding of what it means to to have your country decay into civil war encouraged by outside interests, to be forced to be a refugee, to move to a country where some citizens show you that you are unwelcome. And, while the novel explored the idea of otherness, sometimes the narrator’s politicizing showed that her ideology did not travel in two directions.
A brave and haunting read.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
4 out of 5 butterflies