The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

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6335026Paperback, 373 pages

Published: July 28, 2009 by Mira (1st published August 1st 2008)

Setting: Iowa

Literary Awards: Barry Award Nominee for Best Paperback Original (2010), Edgar Award Nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author (2010), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2009)

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Seven-year-old Calli hasn’t spoken since she was four years old, when a traumatic incident robbed her of her voice. She has been diagnosed with selective mutism. She communicates intuitively, without speech, with her best friend Petra, who often speaks for her.

No one — including her teachers, her devoted mom, Antonia, and Griffith, her angry alcoholic father, can entice her to speak. Only her beloved older brother, Ben, and a gifted school counselor seem to understand that her silence is not a choice, and that coaxing and bribery won’t help. Fourteen-year-old Ben, who seems preternaturally mature and brave, protects his little sister — hands down, he’s my favorite character.

One morning, both Calli and Petra disappear. In alternating scenes, we see Calli go through a grueling ordeal in the wide Iowa forest that has always been her refuge as we watch the investigation unfold. Throughout the day, we also come to intimately know each of the characters. As the girls’ parents struggle with their fear and guilt over their missing children, other memories unravel, some wonderful and some charged with regret and shame.

The Weight of Silence is a suspenseful story, full of complex characters. It moves fluidly among various points of view, adding richness and complexity without losing the silky flow of the story.

Folks, I couldn’t put this one down. The suspense hooked me in, but what held me were characters I cared deeply about and themes that — for me — cut painfully close. It was a story about parental love, regrets in marriage and parenthood, and the agony of feeling we’ve failed those we love most. It was also about love, forgiveness and hope.

Another thing I enjoyed about the book was the carefully observed nature scenes. I could see, hear, and feel the life in the woods, which seemed to have a faintly magical quality. The author illuminated those corners of childhood which include picnics in trees, marveling over a fawn wandering in the forest, and cicada shells preserved in treasure boxes.

My only quibble was that I was disappointed in the ending. The resolution seemed contrived and predictable to me. However, I recommend this book to fiction lovers, particularly those who, like me, are suckers for family dramas. I will warn you that a child is physically and sexually assaulted, though there is nothing explicit.

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