Short takes: “The Quiet” by Carys Davies

from The Redemption of Galen Pike

In her masterful story “The Quiet,” Welsh writer Carys Davies displays, among other things, an effortless ability to manipulate her readers’ expectations. This manipulation involves a carefully calibrated modulation of tone and point of view, made all the more impressive by the story’s brevity.

“The Quiet” opens with a woman in an isolated homestead receiving a visit from a male interloper. The very first sentence – “She didn’t hear him arrive” – deprives the protagonist, and the reader along with her, of essential information; her lack of hearing puts her at a disadvantage, as does our uncertainty about who this man is, or what his relationship to the woman might be. Davies heightens this feeling of unease by deploying traditional tropes of horror fiction: the isolated cabin, the wind and the rain that batter the tin roof. The storm that robs the woman of her ability to hear the man’s approach also allows for the literary equivalent of a cinematic jump-cut scare: “She didn’t know he was there until she looked up from her bucket of soapy water and saw his face at the window, his pale green eyes with their tiny pin-prick pupils blinking at her through the glass.”

Everything here, from the general mood to the specific details – the face at the window, with its “pale green eyes” and “tiny pin-prick pupils” – is calculated to elicit a sensation of apprehension; the visitor is suggestive of a threatening figure, an implication underscored by the third paragraph, which comprises a single sentence: “His name was Henry Fowler and she hated it when he came.”

Davies deliberately unbalances the narrative in these early moments: we know more about the man – most specifically, his name – than the woman, who is thrust into the role of a prototypical victim, a role that will be reinforced and subverted as the story progresses. Not until the second page are we provided with anything resembling concrete information about the woman or her situation: “Her name was Susan Boyce and she was twenty-six years old. It was eight months now since she and Thomas had sailed out of Liverpool on their wedding day aboard the Hurricane in search of a new life.” Even here, Davies provides her reader a reason to remain on edge: the name of the ship that carried Susan and Thomas to their new life is redolent of nature’s violence, a subtle refraction of the stormy weather that greets us in the story’s opening moments.

Intrinsic to the success of the narrative is the author’s linguistic precision. If Jonathan Swift’s formula holds – “Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style” – “The Quiet” is an exemplar of that true definition: Davies employs a surgical concision while also ensuring that her spare language is suitably implicit and resonant.

Take as one example the title. The idea of quiet runs throughout this tale, on the level of both content and form. It’s apparent right from that signal opening line, and the notion of quietness is returned to throughout the story. The solitude of Susan Boyce’s married life on the remote outpost began as a welcome respite from the bustle of Liverpool, though the lack of a social support system becomes troublesome as time wears on and the contours of the couple’s life change. “At the beginning of it all, she hadn’t minded the quiet,” we are told, and we are nudged to ponder what has transpired in the interim to render the homestead and its environs less comforting and more – pardon the term – disquieting.

But the notion of quiet also functions as an operating principle of the story’s style: Davies resolutely eschews pyrotechnics in favour of a muted, minimalist approach. Her declarative sentences frequently circle around key information that is withheld from the reader until late in the story; when those important components of the narrative are revealed, it is in a matter-of-fact way that heightens the affective impact on the reader. What in lesser hands would devolve into melodrama is rescued by the author’s restraint. Details that appear in the early part of the story – Susan Boyce’s unease at the way Fowler looks at her, for instance, “as if he could see right through her” – take on a different shade of meaning as the relationship between the two characters becomes clear.

Their shared experience – what ends up bonding them after a series of mistaken assumptions on both their parts – is revealed with an economy and control that has the paradoxical effect of heightening the tension and emotional stakes. Fowler’s pained admission – “My wife … was bigger than me” – is forceful precisely for what it leaves out; a lesser writer would have been tempted to extrapolate this line into a full-blown soliloquy, thereby robbing it of its emotional effect. When Susan Boyce responds by divulging her own secret – the one so terrible she was unable to admit it to a doctor or a priest – it is because of the realization that the man who first appeared as a threat has much in common with her; Davies effortlessly incorporates a narrative reversal into her story so that we understand along with Susan Boyce that we’ve had it wrong all along.

And tellingly, Susan Boyce’s acknowledgement to Fowler, when it comes, occurs in silence.

Short takes: “The Quiet” by Carys Davies
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One thought on “Short takes: “The Quiet” by Carys Davies

  • June 22, 2017 at 7:32 pm
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    Thanks for this. I will never forget this story. It’s one of the great ones.

    Reply

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