SPG Book REviews, June 5, 2013

Review by Justin Dittrick

What is it like not to have a voice? To be unable to share one's thoughts and feelings with the people one cares about? What is it like to be alone "Out There" and voiceless?

Caroline Wissing's stunning young adult novel, Voiceless, is narrated by Annabel, who was placed in foster care at Noble Spirit Farm. As the witness of a traumatic event, she has lost the ability to speak and must convey her thoughts and feelings with signs and emotional expression.

The first half of the novel takes place at Noble Spirit Farm, where Annabel and her foster siblings live in a world once-removed from the violence, alcoholism, and drug-abuse that have had an effect in shaping them. Annabel recalls in shimmering detail what makes a teenager's life on the farm so special, so formative. She lovingly describes her relationships with her companions, both animal and human, whose idiosyncrasies will seem poignant and familiar to readers of all tastes.

Due to an unexpected event, Annabel must leave Noble Spirit Farm with Graydon, her first lover. The second half of the novel is set in downtown Ottawa, inside a crummy apartment rented by Graydon's drug-dealing friend, Cooper. The contrast between life on the farm and life "Out There" with Graydon and Cooper is stark, indeed. While it would not be accurate to describe Wissing's treatment of Noble Spirit Farm as idyllic, Annabel very soon comes to grasp the consequences of her decision and experiences a pining for a home left behind. As Annabel desperately attempts to adapt to life on her own, the novel touches on the great vices, injustices, and sins of our time, as encountered by one who cannot speak in their midst. Annabel's experience in downtown Ottawa confronts her with a truly hopeless, quite nightmarish, existence, though Annabel's youthful inner-strength, her innocence, her new friendships, and a bit of serendipity, allow her finally to seize her day.

Wissing is a very talented storyteller who demonstrates a knack for intertwining the past and the present. As a result, the novel reads beautifully, with every gesture, every moment, seeming to be gently lifted from time and impeccably preserved. The novel is well-balanced, the tone remarkably even, and the characters fully human and alive under Wissing's seasoned touch. Voiceless is bittersweet, memorable, and true.

 Resource Links (Volume 18, Number 1, 2012)

Voiceless is the gripping story of Annabel, who loses the physical ability to speak after her drug addict mother’s boyfriend murders her grandmother, who also acts as Annabel’s guardian. After her grandmother’s violent death. Annabel is fostered to Mary and Bobby who look after both hurt teenagers and hurt horses and she becomes known as “Ghost”. Very confused and unhappy, and wishing to make sense of what has happened to her, Ghost’s life becomes entwined with that of another mixed-up abused teenager in the group and she runs away to Ottawa w ith Graydon Fox and unbelievably, her life becomes even more horrifying.

 Annabel’s short life is infused with just about every degree of human behaviour and deviance that is possible. The band of teenage misfits at Mary and Bobby’s home include Tully, an abandoned dwarf, Jerome, an asthmatic allergic aboriginal, and Christine, a teenage hooker. Into this mix arrives the charismatic Graydon, who has been physically abused by his father and has issues with pyromania. Annabel is inexplicably drawn to Graydon and the two leave for Ottawa after an unexplained and devastating fire at the farm.

In Ottawa, Annabel/Ghost’s life becomes even more dangerous. She and Graydon are living with his drug-dealing friend, Cooper, who is threateningly capable of most anything imaginable, and finally Annabel is frightened into the streets.

Caroline Wissing has created a totally credible character in this young woman who cannot speak and yet is incredibly resilient and smart and able, despite the fact that she can only convey her wants, needs and feelings through gestures, facial inflection and notes. The reader is aching for this girl as she endures one horror after another, and is rooting for her all the way. Thankfully, Wissing provides a denouement that satisfies the readers’ need for closure.

Very well written in vibrant prose, Voiceless has few shortcomings as a compelling story. However, it does verge on the edge of excess at times, as it careens from calamity to calamity as Annabel’s life gets darker and darker. It’s a tough world out there and this book offers up just about every stereotype of damage we know of — from murder to abortion, as well as the mean streets of the homeless. Likely, the story could have been as powerful and more believable with a little less of the sordid detail.

Strangely, Annabel could hardly be described as “voiceless” with her clear re-telling of her own story, and this book will likely appeal to teenage girls. Less so, teenage boys as the point of view is definitively female.
— Ann Letain

Thematic Links: Coming of Age Stories; Homelessness