REVIEW: Simone St. James’s SILENCE FOR THE DEAD, Or Crossing No Man’s Land

Silence_For_the_DeadWhen Miss Bates was in graduate school many years ago, she read Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars.  She went on to read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, (which she still counts among her favourite books) and all of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.  As she completed her graduate studies, Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy was published, Regeneration, The Eye In the Door, and The Ghost Road, and Miss Bates devoured them in singular sittings.  “The Great War” was a line in the sand in Western history and we experience its repercussions still.  Her reading and rereading of these great books and fascination with the era and its aftermath remain.  It follows that she was disposed to be interested in, if not to like, Simone St. James’s post-Great-War mystery-ghost-story-historical-romance Silence For the Dead.  She found that she loved it!  Its echo of history’s ghosts, their haunting of us, the experience of ordinary, working-class people, the crossing of the dividing-line between classes that the trenches entailed, the walking wounded that are its legacy … all of that and more is in St. James’s hybrid novel of romantic suspense, closed-room mystery, ghost story, and one gloriously rendered romance of friendship, respect, love, humour, and desire.  Like most thrillers, it lost some of these wonderful threads in the solving of the mystery as it lapsed into sensationalism, a niggling point in light of its wunder-HEA, however. 😉 If you read one mystery with really “strong romantic elements” this year, it should be this one.

“They’re quiet as ghosts.”  Says the cabdriver who delivers nurse-heroine Kitty Weekes to Portis House, an isolated estate functioning as an asylum for shell-shocked WWI veterans. Except he’s not talking about the former-soldier patients, but the fleeing nurses.  They leave.  Why?  “Something rotten” is here and Kitty walks into it. Kitty is a sad and desperate young woman.  On the ride to Portis House, “My silence seemed to make him [the cabdriver] uncomfortable, had done so for miles.” Her silence harbors secrets, difficult, traumatic secrets, secrets that will be cracked open under the pressure of the soldiers’ traumas, ones that echo her own. If the veterans are survivors of a political war, Kitty is the survivor of  a domestic one, a war waged on her in blows and humiliation by her father. She is silent, wary, frightened, and carries her own ghosts into the haunted, rigidly-run estate.  There are nineteen men housed in Portis House, run by Matron, a seemingly hard-assed nurse-administrator, but she, like everything else here, is not what she appears. Neither is Kitty, who is no nurse, but a fired factory-girl on the run from her father.  She arrives under pretense and remains because she is kind, caring, and smart. There are things she discovers about herself in this house, amidst creaking floorboards, groaning pipes, and nightly spectres, pale ethereal ones, as well as those that terrorize the patients in nightmares.

“Lonely is what I want.” Miss Bates did not immediately warm to Kitty Weekes. That could have been a potential flaw in the narrative if you need to feel instant “relatability” to a character.  Thankfully, Miss B. eschews that requirement. She likes a hard-to-warm-to heroine, but she’s more exacting of the hero. St. James is obviously a “kindred spirit” for she provides both masterfully. Kitty is lying, taking on responsibility for others’ well-being without qualifications, but she cares, studies, and tries so hard.  She is beset by feelings of worthlessness in light of the deception she’s imposing on them.  She does her best to learn, to gentle, and to listen. And, she grows into her role.  When we finally learn what happened to her, our sympathy and liking are as engaged as our respect,  ” … [when] you’ve been held down on the dirty linoleum by a man twice your size, the blade of a kitchen knife put in your mouth as he tells you to be quiet or he’ll cut out your tongue, something inside you shifts.”  She grieves for her patients and we grieve with her, “I could do nothing for them. I could do nothing for any of them, not even for myself. I tried to say something else. Something important that burned my throat and at the backs of my eyes. But nothing came, and I could only stand helpless with hot tears moving down my face.” This tone dominates the first half of the novel. Its over-riding motif is silence: the silence of fear, the inarticulateness of that we dare not speak, the shameful secrets, the dirty laundery of experience and thought.  Kitty is silently suffering and so are the broken former soldiers. But St. James cleverly leads us, along with her characters, to demand why?  The answers are as old as Homer’s Iliad: honour is a hollow word when blind, self-serving power players, political or domestic bullies, hold sway over ordinary people’s lives. Silence must be broken to free them.

“Dead is never better. Never. The war taught us that.”  Silence has many meanings in St. James’s novel and she adroitly navigates them for us.  Silent ghosts haunt Portis House because they are a powerful symbol of the dead seeking justice and reparation from the living; only the living can set them to rest. It is in our power.  Kitty heals as she serves others and allows herself to be cared for, especially by one broken hero, Jack Yates.  Jack has his own terrible story: an orphan, adopted by middle-aged farmers, his heroic taking of a piece of No Man’s Land led the authorities to use him as a spokesman for the war effort.  He went along, barely aware, from exhaustion and grief, of what they demanded of him. Now, after the war, and he is yet Brave Jack Yates; learning of the death of all his men, he despairs and an attempt to take his own life brings him to Portis House. Kitty recognizes him for the people’s hero she knew from newspapers.  He was the embodiment of the common man in the trenches, one identifiable of the anonymous ones, as Kitty says, ” … someone without a title, someone who had to work for a living, could matter. Thousands of men like that die every day, our sweethearts and husbands and brothers and cousins, and none of them mattered a damn.” Therein lies the war’s tragedy, that the loss was for naught, that it was purposeless. Jack knows this too and it suits the powers-that-be to silence him, ” “He doesn’t talk to the other patients. We aren’t allowed to mention him by name.’ ” and ” ‘Patient Sixteen came to us with instructions from the highest level of government … that his stay here was to remain confidential.”  Kitty and Jack are attracted to each other.  St. James writes a novel for adults when she has her characters communicate instead of experiencing insta-lust. Their communications are sexy, though, sensuous, and moving: some are silent (a single salute through a window glimpsed, a smile; at Portis House, by the end, justice is served and even silence is redeemed by loving gesture), but there are words, healing words, confessions, avowals; here is a sampling, “I felt the stirrings of a burning, angry dissatisfaction. I started trying to understand … angry words like Mons and Passchendaele and Ypres, incalculable numbers of dead, ships sunk, blurry photographs of battles.”  Pain connects our hero and heroine; in words to each other, to the men, and eventually a shared purpose, and airing silent, shameful secrets, bring peace.

“Something sounded in me… “ says Kitty, when she becomes aware, physically and spiritually, of Jack Yates, “deep down like a bell being struck in the depths of the ocean, something that saddened and frightened me.” Don’t mistake this phrase for a lugubrious one: it is our heroine coming awake, ready to speak, ready to listen to the men, their stories, and especially Jack’s.  He calls to her like Rochester does to Jane, even while the mad and weak and ghosts gather forces like an army, “All was silent for a long, black moment, long enough for me to consider retreating from the room as quietly as I had come … ‘Nurse Weekes.’ That voice. So soft now, in the depths of the night. Intimate.” Intimacy, connection, support, and caring are part of one of the loveliest renditions of sheer physical attraction Miss Bates has read in a long while, “He leaned a little further forward, his gaze soft on me. ‘You’re damned beautiful.’ Something jarred inside me like a shard of glass.”  Miss Bates loved this imagery of bells and glass as our heroine is startled awake, out of fear and worthlessness, to a sense of her own power, her own strength.  Jack is so absolutely lovely, St. James’s touch so delicate in writing of our heroine’s trauma.  Indeed, dear reader, this novel is worth reading for the scene where Jack lets Kitty ogle him, where he gives her all the power.  He knows how to give her space, support her without interfering or playing the he-man.  Just what she needs to bring herself out of the silence to admit, “I could be afraid, and I could still do this, still do anything I wanted … he’d come back from that dark, dark place he’d been … both of us had thought ourselves alone in the world, and … we’d both been wrong.”  St. James’s novel is strictly closed-door love-making, but it is no less sensuous and heart-wrenching. Miss Bates loved these two, rooted for them, and likes to think of them happy and free, talking, holding hands over a shared table, a shared life.

Simone St. James has penned a wonderful novel and Miss Bates encourages you to read it; therein, she found “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.  (Miss Bates hasn’t read Simone St. James’s first two novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death, but they’re making their way to her as she writes and as you read this, dear reader.)

Simone St. James’s Silence For the Dead is published by NAL (Penguin) and has been available in paper and e-format since April 1st, at the usual places.

Recently, we heard of the passing of many romance readers’ much beloved Mary Stewart, who also wrote frisson-inducing romantic suspense of the gothic variety.  Susanna Kearsley is another favourite. (And even one of Miss Bates’s great 2014 reads, Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress, is of hybrid ilk: part mystery, part historical fiction, part romance.)  Miss Bates is really liking these writers’ combination of mystery, gentle, contemplative heroines, and quietly ominous air of “something rotten” in the heroines’ confrontations with the unknown.  Are you a fan, dear reader?  What do you like about these types of books and/or authors?  What are some of your favourites?  And what appeals in them for you?

14 thoughts on “REVIEW: Simone St. James’s SILENCE FOR THE DEAD, Or Crossing No Man’s Land

  1. It’s not up on Kobo yet so will keep my fingers crossed. I liked her book The Haunting of Maddy Clare as well – again she is writing about the working classes, ghosts and violence. Love your review 🙂

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    • And Miss Bates will keep her fingers crossed for you! It’s available in North America, so it can’t be far behind. It’s a wonderful novel: really she couldn’t put it down … to the detriment of work at a very busy time of year.

      MissB. is so very glad to hear that you enjoyed Maddy Clare because she’s ordered a paper copy and looks forward to a long, lazy summer day with cold lemonade and “working classes, ghosts, and violence” (though it’s pretty mild): a great summary of St. James subjects! 🙂

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  2. Oh, I am a (very, very!) long-time fan of the modern gothic. I can vividly remember reading Victoria Holt’s ‘Mistress of Mellyn’ as a young teen. It had just been published and several friends and I just gobbled it up. This led to Phyllis Whitney (‘Thunder Heights’, ‘Window on the Square’, etc) and, of course, the great Mary Stewart. Jane Aiken Hodge’s books weren’t quite as ‘gothic-y’ but still great reads. Barbara Michaels excelled at weaving the uncanny into her stories–‘Ammie Come Home’ still gives me the shivers. Madeline Brent was also on my ‘must read’ list.
    And then, it seems, the uncanny fell out of favor. And I missed those kind of stories, even though I had burnt out on many of the authors.
    I was thrilled to pieces when Kearsley came on the scene–The Shadowy Horses’ is on my keeper shelf.
    All of these stories featured intrepid heroines–not hopeless victims in constant need of rescue.

    I have read two of Simone St James’ books (Maddy Clare and Silence for the Dead’) and enjoyed them. Not as much as Kearsley, but enough to keep her on my ‘read the next book by this author’ list.

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    • LOL! Miss Bates knows what a fan you are and hoped that her review would elicit a comment as wonderful as the one she got, chock-full of lovely new-to-her names for Miss Bates ever expanding gothic reading list! *scurries off to jot down names*

      She most definitely agrees with you on the heroine front and that was why it was so REFRESHING to read St. James’s novel: the heroine took care of herself, took care of the hero, and only got smarter and tougher. The beauty of the modern gothic, as you call it, is the lack of ninny-hood of the heroine and, more often than not, the secondary role of the hero, lovely as this one was, who watches, advises, cares for, but never manhandles, or interferes in what is the intellectual prowess of the heroine and her strong sense of justice. Miss Bates just loves this.

      Moreover, MissB. just ordered a copy of Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses on your and a Twitter friend’s recommendation. Because Scotland and a mention of a Roman legion … because Miss Bates read and reread a tattered school copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth.

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  3. I adore gothic-flavored romantic suspense–I’m listening to Barbara Michaels’s “Be Buried in the Rain” right now, in fact. I’ve read it a million times but listening to it for the first time. I love these books–especially the ones by Michaels–because they feature women who are often in a transitional period of their lives and who are trying to regain or assert some sort of control over their lives. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this genre was so big in the 70s and 80s as more and more women entered the workforce and ended unhappy marriages.

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    • What a marvelous perspective you’ve brought to Miss Bates here: she’d never thought of that 70s and 80s phenomenon, but it is so very true. And cause for celebration: as another commentator pointed out, the strong heroine and her control over her own life and strong sense of right and wrong as she deems it are such attractive aspects to these novels.

      Miss Bates is tickled pink by the responses to the, as you so rightly put it, “gothic-flavoured romantic suspense”. It is utterly delicious as a reading experience, also for Miss Bates because, while our heroines may struggle, or find themselves in peril, they are not wallowing in angst. They are mistresses of their fate, with heads unbowed. And they are curious, feeding their minds with a puzzle to be solved and injustice to be redressed.

      And now you’ve given Miss Bates another title to jot down in her little black book of books to look for … 🙂

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      • I agree with Natalie, except that I would bump the time frame back to the mid-1960s. Indeed, Mary Stewart started writing in the mid 1950s, Barbara Michaels in the early 1960s.
        I have very firm memories of (what seemed like) every third mass market paperback on the racks in 1965-66 being some sort of ‘gothic’ romance (most of them very forgettable and bad to boot)–proving, once again that jumping on the publishing bandwagon is nothing new.

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        • This is true about Mary Stewart & the 1950s: we forget what a huge contribution she has left us (RIP) and how great the span of her career. The best legacy: to give happiness and thoughtfulness and pleasure. Miss Bates is planning a massive first-time read of the Mary Stewart oeuvre over the summer; she greatly looks forward to your thoughts!

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      • I believe MPM’s first novel, Ammie, Come Home came out in 1968 or so but of course would have been written earlier (so let’s split the difference, Barb :D). I have read very little Mary Stewart, in part because I have not-so-fond memories of reading her Arthurian novels during a particularly bad transitional time in my life. Sigh.

        But I really recommend MPM most wholeheartedly, Ammie, Come Home is wonderfully creepy and features an older protagonist. Ruth is one of my all time favorite characters.

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        • Yes, it did come out in ’68!

          Funny, Miss B. read no Mary Stewart after the same with her Arthurian books, which she didn’t like all that much and barely remembers. Also, Miss B.’s appreciates the Ammie rec: it’s darned expensive as “e” and not available in paper. 😦

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  4. Ooh, this is one I really want to read, partly in homage to much-adored novels of Victoria Holt, which were my absolute staple for several years in high school. I’ve drifted away from romantic suspense, and, indeed, have almost lost the patience to read a real mystery, but this sounds very appealing!

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    • Miss B. thinks it’s one you’d really enjoy: it’s got all those delicious Jane-Eyrish elements: the mysterious house, the sounds in the night … but Jack Yates, working-class hero, is gentle, kind, smart, no semi-villainous Rochester. Still, it brings back the Holts, Whitneys, Michaelses, and Stewarts so lovingly, but makes it her own as well.

      Funny you should say that about a “real” or “pure” mystery: Miss B. used to read tons of them, but their step-by-step plot is boring to her now. These hybrid forms, however, is what she’s loving lately: the Lin too and this.

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  5. Oh, what a fun discussion!
    Natalie–FYI, Barbara Michaels first two bits of fiction were the historical-setting, Victoria Holt-ish gothics ‘Master of Blacktower (1966) and ‘Sons of the Wolf’ (1967) and that is what made the contemporary-set ‘Ammie, Come Home'(1968) such a hit. OMG! a modern ghost story/romantic mystery/ with some seriously sexual overtones–what’s not to love??!! Yes, Ruth is a great ‘older’ heroine, but I will confess to having the hots, during my very first read, for young Sara’s boyfriend!!

    I was fortunate enough, due to timing, to have read all of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books before she wrote her Merlin books (which I rated merely ‘meh’). Sometimes being older than dirt has its advantages (*grin*)

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