May 06, 2013

The Color of Silence

by Liane Shaw
Second Story Press
269 pp.
Ages 13-17

Does silence have a colour?  Or does silence have different colours?  If I'd been asked those questions, I might have initially given silence the colour black - a void, without filling, a black hole of nothingness but the potential for sound.  But Liane Shaw shows us that The Color of Silence will vary with the listener, here specifically two teens: one whose world had been filled with laughter and song, and then terror, before she chooses not to speak; and one whose silence is involuntary as a result of a medical condition which has denied her a voice since birth.  And just as she did in Fostergirls (Second Story Press, 2011), her novel which was reviewed here on December 5, 2011, Liane Shaw demonstrates that perspective is everything and nothing is the same for everyone.

Alternating chapters between Alexandra and Joanie, and the reminiscences and present situations of both seventeen-year-old girls, Liane Shaw has the two connecting first due to a court order, definitely involuntarily, and then emotionally and naturally through silence.  Alexandra Taylor is court-ordered to provide 200 hours of community service after an accident in a borrowed car leads to the death of her best friend, the popular Cali Prescott.  While both Alex and Cali had loved singing, Cali's talent seemed more innate and now Alex can't even bear to speak.  With her dad, Alex is somewhat more forthcoming, although accepting the guilt for Cali's death and recognizing the futility of her words in preventing it have numbed Alex's desire for verbal communication. Unfortunately, Joanie is the one whose brain doesn't relay messages to her body and suffers through repeated bouts of severe respiratory distress, necessary feeding tubes, a lack of muscle control (except for her eyes) and no voice.  And yet she is the one who works tirelessly to understand Alex and to connect with her.

Joanie, whose poor health and absence of real family would give her great reasons for bitterness, shows only acceptance and understanding, trying to learn more about Alex's reluctance to speak (she doesn't know anything about the court order) and still appreciating the silence she brings.
I rather like having someone here who understands about silence. (pg. 69)
Joanie's silence is coloured with the prisms of light, i.e., rainbows, that reflect from a stone necklace that has been hung above her hospital bed.  The colours trigger her memories of happier times, staying at the group home, going out on school trips, and just being able to leave her hospital bed. So much of her day is quiet because of the dearth of visitors, essentially only her care staff.  Until Alexandra.  Joanie is delighted with Alex's visits, although Alex barely groans out a gasp or yes or no for her first visits.  But Joanie takes it upon herself to get Alex speaking.
Finding the words in silence is one of the things I do best. (pg. 123)
Though the two girls seem to be voiceless, they are attentive to each other.  For Alex, she is too distracted at the beginning to notice much about Joanie, spending much of her efforts anticipating others judging her for her past "crime" and her lack of skills.  Similarly, Joanie worries about others' perceptions of her, even wishing that,
there was a magic mirror that could show him who I really am.  I don't want either of us to keep on looking at the outside of me. (pg. 93)
 When Joanie is given the opportunity to turn her eye movements into words using technology called the Eye Gaze (which they affectionately call the Wizard), the two girls are finally on the same page, with Alex realizing that she has something to offer Joanie i.e., the time and effort to ensure the Wizard is everything it can be.  They are only limited by Joanie's health and consequently time to see what the Wizard can help her achieve.

Liane Shaw ensures that the readers see that voicelessness can be selective or involuntary but the consequences similarly disheartening.  For each girl there is a degree of shame (justified or not, as much shame is) but understanding, appreciation and  effort can mitigate the effects, if only temporarily.  The Color of Silence is not a plot-driven novel of adventure, intriguing subplots or parables to teach us how to live. It's a story of two characters and how they develop and evolve into better functioning individuals, finding the colour in their lives.

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