Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Color of Silence by Liane Shaw

Seventeen year old Alexandra Taylor is in a courtroom to be sentenced for joyriding. Eleven months, sixteen days, and thirteen hours after Alex and her best friend were involved in a tragic car accident that cost the life of her best friend Calliope Prescott. She is sentenced to two hundred hours of community service and one full year of probation. The conditions of her probation are to continue regular participation in school, observing a nightly curfew of ten o'clock.

Alternating between flashbacks of her life before the accident and her current situation, Alex remembers the events that led to her being in the courtroom. Cali is determined to go to a party but Alex doesn't really want to go. Alex decides to attend even though she'd rather stay home and practice for the recital two days after the party. The party is held at Cory Bellevue's home - a mansion in Greystone Estates. Cali wants to go because of her crush on Matt Wainfield. The two make arrangements to attend and to be picked up by Alex's dad afterwards. At first Alex feels uncomfortable but settles in when she meets Mandy from her vocal class. However, Alex and Cali's lives change forever when Cali takes the keys to Matt's car to do a coffee run.

Her life post-accident finds Alex being taught at home for some of her subjects as she is too distressed to return to school. She remains distracted and unfocused as Ms. Smithson reminds her to keep up with her work in math. Nelle Parkins, Alex's probation officer tells her she has secured a community service project for her at the local hospital where she will visit a young girl the same age as Alex who has serious physical challenges. She lives in the hospital and Alex will be a companion to her, reading, talking or doing whatever staff feels is necessary - something Alex is not happy about.

That girl is seventeen year old Joanie Watson who cannot move on her own and cannot talk. She needs to be fed via a tube that enters her stomach. The only thing Joanie can control is her eyes.  When she was a baby, Joanie was left at a children's hospital by her mother who was wearing a necklace of beautiful polished stones. She left the necklace for Joanie as a keepsake.

Joanie lived in another special hospital for a time and then lived in two different group homes, although some of that time involved hospitalization. At the second group home everyone was kind to Joanie and it became home for her. Joanie couldn't stay in the group home though once her lungs began to deteriorate.

 Above her hospital bed hangs her mother's necklace of coloured stones which she uses to remind of her things that have happened in the past. Each stone draws her into a memory of her past. Joanie's favourite nurse is Patrick, who has sparkling eyes and who makes her laugh. Patrick tells Joanie that she is going to have a new visitor, a girl the same age. Joanie is thrilled and hopes that this girl will be someone who truly sees her.

Alex learns that Joanie has a neuromuscular disorder that prevents her from being able to control her body and that she cannot talk. One of the nurses, Kathleen, encourages Alex to talk to Joanie as they believe she understands. At their first meeting Joanie quickly recognizes from Alex's eyes that "she has her windows closed so that no one can see inside."  She wonders why Alex has so few words. Alex is unhappy with her placement because she must go to the hospital and do the one thing she doesn't want to do - talk. Alex's father tells her that she cannot continue her silence forever, that eventually she will have to talk to people.

Because she doesn't want to speak, Alex decides to bring a CD of Broadway tunes. However the music causes Alex to flashback to just before the party when Cali did her makeup. It is a painful memory. For Joanie, the music makes her feel connected to Alex. The next day Alex returns with a jazz CD. Joanie feels that Alex is using the music to block out the world. But how long can Alex continue to block out that fateful day of the party? How long can she continue to live in the past and ignore the present?


The Color of Silence is a deeply moving story about a young girl's journey from guilt to acceptance and healing as she helps an unexpected friend achieve her dream of communicating with those around her.

Shaw uses Alex and Joanie, both of whom are stuck in the past, as narrators in The Color of Silence. Their relationship is set against the tragedy of the accident that claimed Alex's best friend's life. Eleven months after the accident, Alex is still struggling to cope with what happened, blaming herself for not taking care of Cali. Alex spends her days thinking about her life with Cali before the accident. It is through her memories that the events leading up to the accident are revealed.She lives in the past yet is unable to confront it.

Joanie who is confined to hospital as her health deteriorates is also focused on the past. At one time she attended school and lived in a group home. Unable to communicate with the outside world, Joanie's world now consists of the interactions she has with hospital staff, especially Patrick and a vibrant inner life. Joanie looks at the stone necklace which she calls her "rainbow' because of its coloured stones and uses each stone to draw out a memory of events in the past. As their friendship blossoms both help the other to live in the present.

Although Alex has been assigned to the hospital to help Joanie, it is Joanie who helps to break Alex out of her grief and move her towards forgiveness, acceptance and healing. Joanie pulls Alex out of her self-absorption and makes her think about what Joanie's life is really like. Alex has chosen not to talk, but Joanie cannot speak even if she wanted to.This leads Alex to gradually begin engaging with Joanie  and after her first session learning to use the eye gaze technology, Alex finds herself not thinking about Cali but of Joanie who is a real part of her present. Likewise once Alex decides to be present to Joanie and realizes that Joanie will have a much better chance of succeeding to learn the eye gaze technology with her help, she draws Joanie away from her necklace.

Since Joanie is severely disabled Shaw uses her character and situation to explore how people view the disabled. Joanie remembers watching the movie version of The Wizard of  Oz and how the scarecrow was viewed differently by people because of his "raggedy outsides".  Joanie feels that people view her in the same way. "My raggedy outsides hide my brain as well. Even though some people treat me like I can think and feel, no one really understands how much of me there really is. Maybe someday I'll find my own wizard who will show the world that I have a fully operating brain that was really inside of me all along..."   (the latter a foreshadowing of Joanie's learning of the Eye Gaze technology).

When Joanie is taken to the Children's Museum, one of the volunteers places her in front of a mirror but Joanie does like this because the mirror only shows her reflection, the outside of her.  Instead she wishes "there was a magic mirror that could show him who I really am."  "because the outside of me really doesn't look like the inside of me at all." Although Patrick tells Joanie that she is the strongest person he knows, the complete opposite of what most people tell her. "Mostly I hear words like 'frail,' 'weak,' and 'fragile' when I hear other people talking about me."

As Joanie begins to learn how to use the Eye Gaze which she calls her Wizard, she begins to wonder how learning to communicate with others will change their view of her and how having this ability will change her. "What would people think of me, I wonder, if they knew how I was on the inside. Would I seem like the same person to them, or would I become someone different? How would people treat me if I could tell them what I want? Would I become a whole person to them?"
"Will I stay the same person if I can use outside words?...When i woke up yesterday morning, I was Joanie. Silent and filled up with thoughts and dreams that no one but me was every going to know. When I woke up this morning, I was someone who can tell Shawna and Alexandra that the square has a name, and that the name is Blue."

Shaw also demonstrates through the character of Joanie, how the disabled are capable of having a rich interior life,  unknown to the rest of us. When Joanie is beginning to learn to communicate she notes that Patrick remarks that she now has words. But Joanie has had words for a long time, they have just been inside her. "Patrick would be surprised to know that I have my very own stories and hopes and thoughts and ideas and feelings."

A major theme throughout the novel involves the use of words and silence. Alex won't talk because of the trauma she experienced during the accident. Juxtaposed with her situation is that of Joanie who cannot talk because of her disorder.  Yet both girls help each other to find a way to speak. When Cali is driving and loses control of the car she screams at Alex "I don't know what to do! I can't control it! Tell me what to do!"  However Alex can't remember what to do and in her panic, "My thoughts are all scrambling around in a total panic and I can't find any words that will help her." Alex blames her silence for Cali's death.  The silence after the crash leads Alex to remark,  "They say that silence is golden. I know that isn't true. The real color of silence is black."

After the accident Alex told the police what happened but the words came out mixed up. Eventually she stopped answering the police questions because all anyone wanted to know was who was driving, who owned the car and where they were going.  There was little concern for her or for what happened to Cali. Three months after the accident Alex was taken to a speech pathologist who suggested she needed help to talk about what happened. But as far as Alex is concerned, "I don't have anything to say. My words are useless." because Cali is dead and nothing she says now will bring her back.

However when Alex begins visiting Joanie in the hospital as part of her community service she recognizes how precarious Joanie's life is without the ability to speak.  "She can't tell anyone if she starts to panic. She can't say what she wants them to do or not to do --what she feels or doesn't feel. If she's hungry or tired or happy or sad or lonely."  After her outburst to her father when Alex explains that she's to blame for Cali's death because she didn't make the right choices, Alex knows her words have hurt her father. She also begins to realize that she's hurting Joanie because she's not giving her the best she has to offer by being silent to a girl who wants more than anything to communicate with the outside world. Researching the eye gaze technology leads her to realize, "What is wrong with me? Going in to see Joanie and basically refusing to talk, when all she wants in the world is to be able to do the one thing that I've decided to stop?"

 Meanwhile Joanie cannot vocalize but she uses words all the time. "I actually use words very well. I have listened to stories and movies and plays and people talking around me and to me for seventeen years. I am so full of words and thoughts and images that if I ever could figure out a way to let them loose, they would come swirling out of me in a torrent of syllables... I would fill every room with the colors of my dreams until the whole world became a rainbow of my making." For Joanie, the color of silence is the rainbow.

Joanie eventually leads Alex towards healing and recovery as she learns to communicate. She shares herself and her most intimate part - her rainbow necklace - with Alex. Alex knows this is what friends do and she begins to recognize that Joanie is her friend. Still Alex struggles to find the courage to tell Joanie why she comes to visit her and what happened to her. Alex wants to be a real friend to Joanie and that means sharing something of herself, in her case, the truth about why she has been coming to see Joanie. Talking to Joanie when she's very ill allows Alex to open up and prepares her for the long overdue conversation she eventually has with her father.

Although the novel has a sad ending, Shaw shows Alex is on the road to healing by accepting what she cannot change - her actions in the past. Alex grieves her choices and actions but knows Cali would want her to stop feeling sorry for herself and get on with her life.

The Color of Silence touches on many themes: forgiveness, healing, death, life, and the meaning of friendship making it an interesting read.

Book Details:

The Color of Silence by Liane Shaw
Toronto: Second Story Press     2013
264 pp.


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