After the Silence by Louise O’Neill

Published by riverrun

I’VE read three books this year that take place on fictional islands off the south coast, and all of them contain murders. It could be a case of something like Baader-Meinhoff syndrome, or is it just the curious phenomenon when similar ideas are conceived and executed at the same time, like the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, or the two well received biopics of Truman Capote that were released within a year of each other.

Regardless, each of the books are written by women and all are very different from each other, proving that the germ of a concept can grow into anything at all, depending on how you nurture it. After the Silence is the fourth novel by Cork writer Louise O’Neill, and while a departure from her previous YA oriented books, it deals with similar themes, the strongest being the subjugation of women.

Keelin Kinsella lives on the fictional island of Inisruin, and has done since she was a child. Her standing has changed over the years; where she began as a typical villager in a cash-strapped economy, now she is married to the son of an Irish born, London-based developer with an interest in the island.

It’s ten years after the death of a local girl, one of three sisters renowned for their beauty and charisma. The tragedy occurred during a party at the Kinsella mansion, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it have forced Keelin to become something of a shut in. Her now 27-year-old son has also turned within himself, and it’s only her extroverted husband Henry who continues to curry the favour of the hostile islanders.

When two Australian film makers come to the island to make a documentary about the nationally notorious death, Henry welcomes them with open arms, even providing them with free accommodation. He wants the world to know he has nothing to hide; the accusations against him were dropped due to lack of evidence, and he’s determined to affirm their baselessness.

Keelin isn’t so keen to collaborate. The death changed the island utterly, and she feels a responsibility. She has lost friends, she has a suffocating sense of guilt, but her role in the death is only revealed bit by bit. Her point of view spans about a year, from when the documentarians arrive, and there are passages chronicling Keelin’s early beginnings cumulating in the lead up to the party, with a sort of Greek chorus also occasionally intercepting the main narrative.

Probably the most unsuccessful aspect of the book is the uneven chapter structure, that hinders rather than enhances the storytelling. This may not be down to the author as such, more a decision taken by editors, but sometimes the leaping back and forth over the current narrative and the older one muddies the flow.

That being said, the story itself, that of an unsolved possible murder of a vibrant young woman and the finger-pointing it has brought on, comes as second fiddle to the real subject matter, and is a clever and well executed device used by O’Neill to delve beneath what could be a pedestrian tale. The writer very shrewdly uncovers a deep psychological abuse inflicted on Keelin, at odds with the more obvious abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband.

Domestic abuse comes in all shapes and sizes, and some can be so slyly affected, often under the guise of care or protection, that the victim may not realise they are being manipulated, coerced or subdued until they’re deep in the thick of it. Keelin is a really interesting character who has overcome a violent relationship to become a women’s aid counsellor, who is then subjected to a different kind of torment that was impossible to see coming.

Although she is painted as a victim, and within the latter part of the narrative, a broken and very sad woman, it isn’t in a judgmental way, more so a realistic and pointedly perpetrator-blaming portrait of abuse.

Like O’Neill’s other books that I’ve read, After the Silence offers little in hope. It’s a downbeat work that doesn’t shy away from admitting that sometimes, for some people there aren’t happy endings regardless of how it might seem from the outside.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 30.09.20

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