Book Review - Silence Is a Sense

Layla AlAmmar is studying for a PhD on “the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory”. Her haunting second novel draws on this discipline, demonstrating the inadequacy of language to convey the effects of extreme violence.

A young woman obsessively watches her neighbours in the opposite flats. She is a Syrian refugee who has endured so much trauma in her home country, and the journey into exile, she can no longer speak. The turmoil in her world became “a relentless assault on the senses” until she felt: “the only way to counter this cacophony was to go quiet, to express nothing…to fill myself up with silence.”

When civil unrest spread throughout Syria, AlAmmar’s nameless protagonist had been a student. We track back and forth between the narrator’s final months in Aleppo with her family, friends and boyfriend and her new life in an unfamiliar English city. While her parents fled to Egypt, the narrator had chosen a different route and made the harrowing journey to safety alone, facing fresh (and equally unspeakable) horrors.  

Before the conflict, the state had committed other forms of violence – its watchful eye terrorising its citizens. The risk of being detained, or worse disappeared, hung over every rebellious act and demonstration: “One wrong word could land someone in jail, though more often than not they were just gone.” In Britain, the narrator can watch others freely without risk of censure, although she remains hyper vigilant and is disturbed by the scenes of domestic violence she witnesses in one flat.

Despite her silence, the woman’s thoughts never cease. She finds respite by writing a column, from an immigrant perspective, for an English magazine using the moniker ‘The Voiceless’. Her editor, Josie, frequently requests more of her memories, unconsciously retraumatising The Voiceless every time she asks her to recall the horrors she has endured. When she finally, painfully, obliges Josie treats her work as fiction.

AlAmmar articulates how trauma can fragment memory and identity: “How much I have forgotten simply because it happened so often,” her protagonist admits, “if bombs go off each day, you’re not going to remember each one and who it killed.”  She also explores the loneliness of exile and hostility towards refugees. While waiting for her papers to be processed the narrator is told: “They don’t want refugees clogging up London…as though we were clumps of dirt or hair stopping up a drain.” While ‘assimilating’, the woman experiences small acts of kindness as well as prejudice. Just as she begins to build a tentative friendship with one of her neighbours, racist tensions flare and violence erupts on her doorstep. Silence Is a Sense is not an easy read, but a necessary one.

Originally published in the TLS