The Great Silence, by Doug Johnstone – book review

The more we see of the Skelfs, the more it’s clear just how clever is the premise of the trilogy in which they – and the stars – star. Funeral directors and private investigators observe different ways in which their clients approach life. This enables them to constantly renew the way in which they look at the world. It is no surprise that the two most grounded characters are the ones who really get their vocation, nor that the most character development comes for the woman who is most reluctant about this work. Throw in a PhD physicist intrigued by exoplanets and this is a fertile mix. If Doug Johnstone had written The Great Silence 200 years ago, the Skelfs would have been set in a vicarage. In its blend of serious-minded consideration on the interconnectedness of everything, some grim and gritty action, and some surreal farce and sharp-but-kind observation, this leans as much into Father Ted as to the sci-fi classic Arrival.

Cover of the Great Silence by Doug Johnstone

I read both The Great Silence and its prequel, The Big Chill (here’s the review for Chill – and here’s the one for the first in the series, A Dark Matter) in one day. Partly this is because when you’re having a great time you want to keep going, but also because this is a series that really does read best as an integrated whole. (You’ll better spot some of the cross-references too. They aren’t essential but add to our experience.) But Johnstone does not just find a formula and stick to it; he takes literally the motif of exploration. This time, not only is all human life covered, but some of the others too. The domestic pets show us one way to behave, but there is also a panther (or is it a leopard?) thrown in. And we are not sure what to make of the possibility of celestial chit-chat. Not all of the subjects covered are easy to read about. If The Great Silence set out only to entertain us then I am not sure that it would be appropriate to include them. But they are not covered for sensationalism’s sake but for us to watch how our characters navigate shock, forgiveness and the sheer messiness in which we find ourselves. This series has so much heart, for its three brilliant, flawed and appealing leads and for a supporting cast that show the best (and worst) of our humanity, that it can boldly go where others might not.

For all of Johnstone’s musing about the big picture, the main message of the trilogy comes at the end, in the climactic showdown. Do not – do not – mock ordinary life. Do not be too clever, or cynical, or detached. The ‘small irritations of life’ will always be with us. But it is in the random rhythms we find as we forge our path that we can learn what it means to be fully alive. Hannah, with her nerdiness, Jenny, with her need to heal, and Dorothy, the seventy-something matriarch and indie drummer, are in their own ways trapped and free. In this unusual, inspiring and occasionally beautiful trilogy, Johnstone invites us to work out our own response. 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.

Blog tour poster for The Great Silence

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