Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence

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.

All these views are arguably true, based on the same evidence.

Then there is Hero’s speechlessness, which seems to be a response to her gut feeling about the potentially monstrous power of story. She doesn’t speak up for herself; she bows out of the struggle to be heard, and keeps a spectacular silence–a puzzle more arresting than speech. She doesn’t even need to be responsible for the story that starts to form around her silence, the story about her silence. She gets sent to a special school, where she can witness with sympathy, but without embarrassment, her highly motivated teachers gradually coming to feel that her continued speechlessness is their personal defeat. She can bear it that her mother takes her silence as punishment, and is puzzled by what she’s been punished for.

There are things that Hero is able to observe and understand because she doesn’t take part, but watches and listens. For instance, that there’s not only a real life but a true life. “Real was what everyone knows about. True is what you somehow know inside yourself.”

True life is the life of story. What is the roar that lies at the other side of silence? Perhaps to Hero it is the endless petitions from the adult world–the TV journalists and conference organisers who want something from her mother, something, then something more. Hero can see that her mother has drummed up attention, and that it has an insatiable appetite. And you can’t control other people’s attention once you’ve invited it, as Hero discovers when she finds a portrait hanging in the ruinous parlour of mad Miss Credence’s house, a portrait Miss Credence says is of Rhinda, her daughter, who has gone off into the world. But Hero knows that the portrait is based on a famous newspaper photo of her sister. Annie’s fame has led to the theft of the child Ginevra’s face.

The story you’re telling yourself about yourself can intersect with someone else’s story–you can turn out not to be the hero, the principal, but suddenly find yourself playing an instrumental role in someone else’s story, being seen according to its lights. This is what happens to Hero.

The old Credence house is at the heart of the posh suburb of Benallan. It is surrounded by a wall, and a garden full of old trees, so overgrown that a child can make its way by stepping from branch to branch. This garden is where Hero goes to exist at her true size–to be a self not constrained by family life.

Margaret really captures that formative time when a child is bold enough to go off and make some place their own–find a small bit of the world in order to become themself in it. A place in nature, or anyway the world without other people and it.

Hero crosses the wall into her kingdom of the trees, which she shares only with the birds, and the ginger cat she meets at the top of the wall: “one of those gentle cats that imagine people will always be kind to it.”

One day the wild girl of the trees takes a tumble out of them, and falls at Miss Credence’s feet. Miss Credence’s behaviour when a girl drops out of the trees in front of her is odd. She doesn’t touch Hero, but immediately begins to incorporate her into a story. “All birds fall before they can fly properly,” she says. It sounds like encouragement, even like Annie’s sort of encouragement, but Hero isn’t being asked, “Are you alright?” “Can you move?” Not that she’d answer, anyway. But Miss Creedence doesn’t want an answer. What answers to Miss Credence’s needs is someone who will listen and not speak.

“’Can’t you talk?’ Miss Credence asked me. I shook my head which seemed the simplest thing to do. I was puzzled by her sudden, odd, eager expression, the expression of someone coming upon something that nobody else wants, and seeing a special way of using it.”

Miss Credence seems to recognise Hero as a fellow soul, someone who is above it all, and apart. She knows that Hero will be aware she’s been trespassing, and that Hero might feel that she owes a debt. These are two people who know their fairytales, who know that if you pluck a rose you must to send your daughter to the beast’s castle. Hero is asked to come back and garden; she’s given a job, with pay. Gardening is the real job–the true one is to listen. As Hero weeds, Miss Credence tells her a modified version of a Grimms’ fairy tale. In the original there is a witch who catches girls, turns them into birds, and shuts them in a tower at the top of her castle. Hero thinks she is being told a story about herself: Jorinda, the bird girl. Miss Credence is in fact telling a tale about herself. She is the bird girl. And the evil wizard, Nocturno, with whom she has replaced the witch, is a version of her father. She is walking around wearing her father’s cloak and hat, mimicking his manner, and it can seem like a performance for Hero–eccentric, harmless, a private remedy to Miss Credence’s polite public existence behind the counter of the Benallan post office.

Listening is complicity, but Hero doesn’t really understand this, or how little power she has over her own path through the forest of Miss Credence’s tale till she is asked for a little favour: will she take a photograph of Miss Credence?

“‘Stand over there,’ she said, ‘Then I won’t be looking straight into the sun.’
I walked over to the door which was where she had pointed I should stand, and when I turned, the whole world changed in half a second.
Miss Credence was suddenly holding a gun under her left arm, and I caught her in the act of lifting a victim from the long grass of the ruined lawn which had hidden it till then. It was my old friend the ginger cat. She held him by the tail and his head bobbed a bit. He had not been dead long. He was still limp. His mouth was open. His tongue stuck out. It was a horror moment, real and true, and I actually felt the world darken around me.”

Miss Credence explains very plausibly that cats kill birds, and once this country was all birds, etc. But what we are meant to hear is this: that Miss Credence knows that to cultivate one thing to perfection necessitates killing something else. The reader’s horror isn’t just because this woman shoots cats. It’s that she gets a twelve-year-old to photograph her holding it up as a trophy. Hero takes the photo, and partakes of the killing.

And, as she does “a gust of wind suddenly struck us and brought to me the scream of the ginger cat’s ghost.” Of course the scream Hero hears is the child trapped in the tower at the top of the house. A foreshadowing–we’re being asked to consider that someone capable of the cruelty of shooting a bird-killing cat might be capable of greater cruelty.

Miss Credence covertly overpays Hero for her favour, and when Hero discovers it she feels obliged to go back to return the money. But Miss Credence won’t take it. She’ll only let Hero work it off. So Hero is gradually inducted further into the madness of Miss Credence’s life, by what she’s asked to do, by what she sees, and by the stories Miss Credence continues to tell her.

Professor Credence was, Miss Credence says, a man of ideas and a famous educator. And the reader cannot but think of Hero’s mother, Annie. The Annie of this book–rather than its back-story–has gradually been forced to accept that her view of herself as a benevolent mother wasn’t the whole truth. Despite her love and good intentions things haven’t turned out perfectly for her family.

Now the beauty of this–of Margaret’s approach to all this–is that it isn’t decided. Annie isn’t at fault, nor is she blameless. The fact that she sees herself as a committed crusader (and she pretty much is) is balanced in the story by the reader’s understanding that Professor Credence also saw himself this way. Annie insists that every child has got the potential to be brilliant, or wonderful (a much better word, a Margaret word, that describes what Margaret desired for herself and everyone else–that is: to enjoy a sense of wonder, and to be made wonderful by it). This is sunny and positive, but it also has the possibility of defeat built into it–after all, what are we to think when someone is given every opportunity, yet can’t be coaxed into opening up–and we get a glimpse of this in the plight of Hero’s energetic, caring teachers at Kotuku House, who are defeated by her unwillingness to to give up even one negative decibel of her self-imposed silence. Also, in relation to her own wonderful children, Annie’s ideas have taken on the appearance of secret self-congratulation. Her kids are brilliant because she did the right things with them. This is closer than is comfortable to Professor Credence’s insistence on his daughter’s specialness because she’s his daughter. She’s not like her mother: “mother didn’t operate on our level,” as Miss Credence blithely tells Hero. Professor Credence’s brains are a bequest, a birthright. He and his daughter are an elect: “he was a member of MENSA as well, and they only take the top two and a half percent, so of course it was a thrill for him when I became a member too.” The Professor’s argument for the exceptional talents of his child is essentialist. Annie’s are about what astonishing material all children are, if nurtured in the right way. Here Margaret isn’t so much debating the nature/nurture argument as letting its tension, and our culture’s unease about its undecidability, hum away under her story. Margaret, or possibly the story itself, isn’t interested so much in whether Professor Credence is wrong, and Annie right. What the author and story seem to be interested in is how faithfully sticking to certain beliefs–whether the Professor’s essentialism, or Annie’s benevolent certainty that there is a best to be be made of everyone–shapes those nearest to the believer, those who are meant to demonstrate the truth of the believer’s beliefs with their real lives, or at least keep faith with those beliefs.

The Professor’s exceptionalist essentialism seems less a fully formed world view than a shrinking neurosis. The man teaches, is a celebrated educator, but still feels under-appreciated, slighted, sidelined by people around him, because, he says, they’re jealous of him because he’s the only person in New Zealand who gets his articles published in the august overseas magazine Philosophy and Literature. He is an embattled man. Of course there are people he courted, people he shone his light on. When his daughter was younger–she tells Hero–they had garden parties. And because her father’s sense of what he deserved was so great, his daughter always believed that the people who visited came to worship at his feet. However, it becomes clear to the reader, if not to Miss Credence herself, that the visitors came out of fondness for her home-making, flower-arranging, hostess mother. When her mother died there were no more visitors, apart from Clem–and it’s interesting that this acolyte’s name should suggest silence, being Clammed up. Clem was willing to sit and listen, and admire, and that’s what made him valuable company for Professor Credence.

Margaret lets us in on the operations of the terrible Professor’s mind by opening little windows in Miss Credence’s talk. She speaks about him with admiration. She exonerates him. She seems to forgive him. But cold winds of rage and betrayal are blowing through every window–with bits of straw–because he’s a man of straw. Margaret’s characterisation of Miss Credence’s own helpless characterisation of her father also provides yet another contradictory double-back in Margaret’s pursuit of the truth and utility of the nature/nurture argument. It’s the book doing its moebius strip thing. Professor Credence espouses a very rigid form of the nature argument–some people are born better than others–but as a dark echo of that, the way in which he is portrayed makes it look as though he is in fact one of those people who was born with a terrible lack: a developmental disability. I keep wanting to say, “Oh, he’s on the autism spectrum–or perhaps he’s a narcissist.” I want to make sense of his character as a pathology. I want to point to his lack of empathy, and his obsessive thought patterns–I even want to take as evidence Miss Credence’s quizzical squint, her wandering eyes, her monologues. I want to point out Miss Credence’s helplessness as a housekeeper. I mean–there’s never learning how to keep a place tidy, and there’s haplessly living in clutter and filth. All these things look like signs and symptoms and it does seem that, while Margaret presents the nature argument in a poor light, with a horrible champion, she’s also showing us a proof of the nature argument. There was something wrong with Professor Credence, wasn’t there? He was blind, not wilfully, but pathologically. This doubling back of proof and counter-argument, on argument and proof, is just one instance of the way in which this novel’s main–and great–business seems to be to embrace contradictions.

Hero’s sister Ginevra, finding herself pregnant, has the sense to come back to her family. And she has the luck to have Sammy with her, an older son of her baby’s father, also abandoned by him, whom she brings home to her family because she can finally recognise that it’s a good family, even if all families are kind of tyrannous.

In contrast, Miss Credence, when she has her child, is totally unsupported, abandoned by the child’s father, the scarcely audible and visible Clem, and by her own father, who has died and left her completely ill-equipped to cope, particularly with with her feeling that she’s let him down. He could never forgive the colleagues who failed to appreciate him. She can’t imagine him being forgiving, so can’t imagine him forgiving her. She says that when she first looked at Rhinda she saw something wrong with her. Rhinda was a mistake, so it followed there must be something wrong with her. It’s quite clear to the reader that there probably was never much amiss with Rhinda. When Hero is shut in the tower with the girl and watches her clawing at her own face and screaming silently, she thinks: “I knew she could scream, but she never did when there was anyone in the room with her. So she could be taught. She could learn.”

Now, this terrible story–the story of a closet child–also operates as a commentary on Hero’s voluntary speechlessness. Hero sees that Rhinda hasn’t chosen silence, she’s been silenced, and that’s a very different thing. It’s a great moment of revelation for Hero. She may have understood the impact of her silence on the people around her, but she hasn’t been able to see until that moment what an extremity it is. “What kind of person stops talking? Real people all talk. Perhaps the silence that had made a special person of me in my talking, arguing family really showed that I was a little mad, as well.”

People in this book are silenced. Hero by her desire to establish a separate, marvellous identity. Rhinda by a mother who sees mistakes everywhere, and stuff that needs to be kept under wraps. Miss Credence is silenced by a father who has taught her that she’s so special it shouldn’t be possible for her to put a foot wrong, so that when she does she can’t seek help. Sammy is silent (or unintrusive, rather, since he hovers around the edges, spying and bouncing his basketball). Sammy doesn’t know what to make of the family he finds himself with, and he’s waiting to figure it all out. No one quite manages to silence Annie, which I think is very good, because Ginevra certainly tries to drive her mother into a more manageable position, manageable for Ginevra. But Annie is kind of shameless and irrepressible, in pretty much the same way that Ginevra is.

And then, at the very end of the novel, the novel itself is silenced in a most interesting way. . .

We are told that Hero has written her story down and that that is what we’ve been reading. The narration switches from the first person to the third. Hero–silent Hero–has been talking to us, and now the story itself (or its author) is telling us about Hero. This last section is the story after the facts. After the facts of the story, comes the story of the facts.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this brilliant, disturbing book is that, at its end, Hero decides again on silence. She chooses self-abnegation. She’ll talk to her family, but she won’t talk to the world. She follows the advice of a fairytale and “tells her story to the old stove in the corner.” It’s actually the second time in a young adult novel by Margaret that a protagonist burns her book. In The Tricksters Harry burns her novel because when she hears someone else reading it aloud she realises that it’s a load of silly fantastical nonsense, an insult to the beauty and complexity of her real family life. Harry burns her novel because it’s bad, and because her heated fantasy has conjured fantasy figures into flesh people, has raised fleshly ghosts. The book-burning seems like a necessary, evolutionary step towards becoming a writer–a form of extreme editorial intervention. (Though I have to say, stories about writers burning their writings always give me qualms. I think of Emily Brontë burning her writings because she knew she was dying. Then of Emily Brontë dying perhaps because she burned her writing. I know that my father burned all his journals when my mother broke off their engagement, so that when he set out to try to write again he had nothing behind him. I’m sure that a writer’s many early accumulated pages provide that high place to which the devil can take them and offer them the world.
Harry, when she burns her book, seems to be having a moment of great good taste and judgement. But Hero immolates the story she’s just told us. The formerly silent child from a “word” family chooses to speak, but not write. Perhaps she’s going to become a barrister and keep people out of prison. That would be a good use of what she’s learned. But as a reader I was sad that Hero’s world lost the book I’d just read–which was, by the way, probably the best and most sensitive telling of poor Miss Credence’s story.
Annie has read the book and, because she’s Annie, her praise is threatening and off-putting to her daughter: “You’re a writer, you really are.” She says the word “writer as if she were announcing a great victory for Hero.” Hero is deeply suspicious of any claims to a world stage. She thinks, “Perhaps there’s only just enough light and warmth to go around, and people like Annie, whether they mean to or not, are using up someone else’s share.” So into the wood burner her pages must go. And, “By the time she closed the door of the wood-burner, her story was roaring like a lion in the long throat of the stove pipe.”

I have always thought this wasn’t a coincidental simile–especially since it’s developed further. “She imagined her story, leaping up into the sky, shaking its mane of smoke, and then slowly dissolving over the city, becoming not just one but many stories.” I think we are being shown not just Hero’s, but Margaret’s, gesture of exorcism and renunciation. The author has written a book that explores the good and evil of privacy, the virtues and faults of silence, the good and bad of fame, and then seems to bring it all back to her own case where, after all, these interests come from–and “interests” is a weak word–it’s more than interest, it’s conscientious worrying, it’s real trouble. Margaret imagines the sound of the fire as a lion’s roar, and I can’t help but wonder whether she is having a moment of thinking if only I had not let my lion loose on the world. After all, if there is a moment in Margaret’s story of herself from which Margaret-the-writer proceeds, it’s from writing A Lion in the Meadow, a book with, as it insists, a lion that is there–a lion that is still there–like Margaret the writer is indelibly here, the subject of our talk. When Hero burns her book, Margaret is letting herself imagine a whole different life. A life without an afterlife. She imagines it–but of course the novel’s final, most sly, terrible, and triumphant contradiction is that, though Hero burned her story, and chose silence on these matters, we’ve just read the story, and need only to turn back the pages to read it again. So, Margaret imagines someone choosing not to be a writer, choosing not to trouble the world that way. She burns the book, but–as she would put it–it turned out that, all along, the book was a phoenix.

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