Book review - The Rest Is Silence, By Carla Guelfenbein

Tommy acts like any other young boy with a vivid imagination and youthful curiosity.

He lives in Santiago, Chile, with his father Juan and stepmother Alma, a pet stag beetle and an imaginary friend called Kájef. As well as having a keen interest in astronomy, he follows the blog of ethnologist Mr Thomas Bridge, and enjoys drawing and making-up stories.

But 12-year-old Tommy has a rare heart condition. Bullied at school, he spends his time alone, secretly recording conversations of the adults that surround him. When he overhears some gossip about his mother's suicide, he tries to uncover the truth about her death, setting off a train of events over which he has no control. Carla Guelfenbein has created a powerfully authentic voice in Tommy. His observations reflect his own inner state, as well as illuminating the moral quandaries of the adults around him. As he pieces together the facts behind his mother's death, his narrative also reveals the feelings of guilt that constrain his father.

Underpinning Tommy's story is that of Juan and Alma, who have been married for eight years. After the death of Tommy's mother, Juan throws himself into his work as a heart surgeon, until he meets Alma in Barcelona. They enjoy a brief affair and later, when she finishes her studies, Alma returns to Santiago and marries Juan. She brings her young daughter Lola with her.

Knitting together the voices of the three central characters, Guelfenbein skilfully highlights the different perspectives of gender and age. It is Juan's apparent indifference that prompts the passionate Alma to rekindle a relationship with her former sweetheart Leo.

In Guelfenbein's tender story, the unravelling of memories and how they impact on the present is a potent force. For Alma, "images get delicately pieced together, then deposit themselves in memory, but they don't remain stable there; they continue to change along with the feelings that accompany them". Tommy's lack of memories fuels his obsession with his mother's past. For all of them, memories shape a reality that is constantly shifting. Tommy's search for the truth ends in tragedy, but as well as examining the role of memory in dealing with loss, The Rest is Silence is also about the redemptive power of love. It is their mutual love for Tommy that helps Juan and Alma to reconnect and come to terms with their pasts.

Originally published in the Independent Monday, 13 June 2011