The Silent Land, By Graham Joyce

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The Independent Culture

There are times when we are walking down a street that seems familiar, except that you turn a corner into another familiar street that is, however, not supposed to be there. It is an accumulation of details that causes us gradually to realise that something is wrong with reality – that we are in fact dreaming. Events move in a stately progression that is too logical to be real: the logic of dream.

Graham Joyce's near-perfect novella of near-death experience, isolation and winter cold is a tour de force representation of that sort of realisation. Zoe and Jake are hit by an avalanche when skiing; he digs her out, and they trudge through the snow to their hotel, gradually noticing that the hotel is empty of guests and staff, and the nearby village empty too. Further realisations follow – food laid out in the kitchen for preparation does not decay. Logs in the fireplace give heat and light but do not turn to ash.

Every time they try to leave for the next town, they cannot; cars break down, paths lead them in a circle. They have each other and their love, and that is the only thing stopping this being a nightmare.

Gradually, they accept the possibility that they are dead – that the avalanche killed them – but the number of pages still to go imply to us that there is more to all this than that. Jake's long-dead dog turns up, for one thing, as well as other, more totemic animals. What sustains all this is the clarity of Joyce's prose and the precision of his thinking. This is a perfectly paced book in which each detail, each oddness, comes at the right moment.

It is a book in part about memory. Zoe remembers the death of her father on holiday with his retired mates and her feeling that he had communicated with her at the moment of death – nothing so crude as a visitation, just a sense of well-being, and of being under the same moon. Joyce writes about moments of spiritual insight with a novelist's eye for the shape of moments and a poet's sense of how they feel.

He also has a wonderful sense of how to make things real. His choice of a winter setting, of the violent yet graceful physical exercise of skiing, the little bits and pieces of past experience, above all of the harsh beauty of mountains and the tiring intensity of cold: all these are carefully, magisterially deployed. Part of the point of this book is not our fascination with Zoe and Jake's eventual fates; it is also the austerity with which Joyce depicts it. This is a study in classic supernatural fiction, told with a skill that we enjoy for its own sake without feeling that style swamps story.