Silent Voices by Gary McMahon
I need to start by confessing another of my deeply held prejudices. As one born on the north bank and within sight of the Tyne, I’m a Geordie and therefore deeply protective of the way life in that neck of the woods is portrayed in the media. Which brings me to Silent Voices by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) the second book describing events on this housing estate, the first being Concrete Grove. These books are set just north of Newcastle, close to Morpeth, i.e. in spirit they are intended to be Northumbrian and not Geordie so we can approach them with slightly greater latitude. That said, significant parts of this story do take place in Newcastle itself and, depressingly, in Gateshead. This is what you expect of southerners who tend to lump all the north together as if it’s somehow all the same. I see this author is from one of the north London suburbs called West Yorkshire — only joking.
This is a fascinating book if you’re into the art of taxonomising. What is it? Perhaps it’s fantasy and, since it takes place in a built-up area, urban fantasy or because bad things happen, dark fantasy. Or maybe it’s horror, whether supernatural or urban. Those of you who are of a more pedantic frame of mind have my permission to retreat into a darkened room. When you’ve reached a decision, feel free to light a fire and put out white smoke to show a consensus and alert the fire brigade of the need for a rescue.
Ignoring the label issue, the important thing to note is the name of this estate. Although this is Concrete Grove in the sense that, like many old council estates, most of the housing units are made of the hard stuff and regimented into a circular formation to avoid the creation of inconvenient cul de sacs, this is actually a reference to the trees that have existing on this loculus since the beginning of time (and then some). Unlike Yggdrasil which props up whole worlds, these trees bridge the gulf between reality and dreams. In this, we’re occupying the same literary territory as the wonderful Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock where the line between fact and myth blurs. Except Gary McMahon takes a more ironic view.
Under normal circumstances, the process of urbanisation overlays the natural world, replanting the forests with structures for occupation by humans. To those of us with a sentimental streak, this is inherently melancholic as we destroy the old order in the name of modern civilisation. Robert Holdstock uses his trees as a way of remembering the past, as if they can somehow capture and hold racial memories of fantasy and myth. Yet this magic only works so long as the trees are physically preserved. As in many fantasy novels, the destruction of the trees would signal the final triumph of modernity over the old ways, the sacrifice of the reverence we used to have for nature in the name of progress. There’s only one place where everything can stay the same and that’s in our memories. Yet Gary McMahon demonstrates that real power is never defeated by changes to superficial reality. In this book, the trees are always a part of the landscape whether it’s in the physical world or our dreamscapes. If you were to uproot them and build a small tower block on the site, you could still experience the trees in half-waking, day-dreaming moments just by walking through the doors into the cool, dark concrete interior. At other times, the trees will reach out to those who are more sensitive or of potential use to them. Celtic Druids used wells, sacred trees and sacrificial fires to open the gates to otherworlds. Who knows what sacrifices these trees might demand for maintaining this gateway into dreams.
Silent Voices is a wonderfully sustained piece of writing. It creates three memorable individuals. As children, they had the brash courage of innocence that fires the belief nothing bad can ever happen. This leads to recklessness and a missing period of time. They disappear over a weekend, emerging from the empty building in the centre of the grove bearing evidence of physical abuse. They cannot remember what happened. No-one can explain it. Twenty years later, they are drawn back together again — the Three Amigos in their long-awaited sequel. Brendan has spent his entire life on the estate. He’s not exactly a loser because he’s married happily and has two children. He’s still one of the community. Marty has moved into Newcastle’s world of fixers who service the needs of the demimonde. He’s a prize fighter, prepared to dish out punishment beatings when required and offer security services to those with the right connections. Simon breaches the barrier of the Tyne and makes it into the south where he’s a pusher of his own abilities and builds a highly profitable business. Like Marty, he’s never able to settle into stable relationships. They have no real friends. All three have been damaged by their experiences.
In terms of narrative construction, there’s a good balance between the development of the characters as they are, and a reconstruction of what they were like when young. Gary McMahon also demonstrates a good insight into the culture of Northumbrian estates. He captures the sense of desperation and crushed hopes among the younger people who remain. Only the older ones still stand for the values that made the North East so strong. Fortunately, they are respected. They retain their dignity. South of the Tyne, the older and more vulnerable members of the community often become targets for abuse by the disaffected young. Many are grateful to give up and die to get some peace. The only thing wrong with this book is the language. Although time has eroded the dialects of my youth and left us with pale remnants of accents, there’a almost no attempt to capture the distinctive speech rhythms of either Northumbrian or Geordie. I can forgive the decision to avoid local vocabulary. Even at the best of time, glossaries are inconvenient additions at the end of books. But this could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom — probably a good idea if this book is to sold into the British and foreign markets. Having tendered my completely unfair criticism, I’m left with the sense of having read a delightful book. This is a remarkable piece of dark fantasy with some elements that draw on horror tropes. Although not everything is original and the significance of one factor is not explained (perhaps that’s in the first book in the series which I have not yet read), none of this matters. As put together, Silent Voices is quite clearly one of the best books of its genre or subgenre, no matter what you may decide that is. If you take my advice that this author is definitely worth following, the third novel set in Concrete Grove is titled Beyond Here Lies Nothing.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.