One Question Quiz
(Photo: Colleen Lenihan; design work Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Colleen Lenihan; design work Tina Tiller)

OPINIONBooksAugust 30, 2020

Eileen Merriman’s new novel is sharp, sensual and her finest yet

(Photo: Colleen Lenihan; design work Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Colleen Lenihan; design work Tina Tiller)

The Silence of Snow has a rare and aching truth to it, writes books editor Catherine Woulfe. 

I could pick Eileen Merriman’s writing anywhere, especially the way she’s been writing lately. She has struck on a particular minor key that rings across each page, clear and sharp and quick. It makes you want to listen close. It makes you uncomfortable.

She foreshadows the bejesus out of things. She likes motifs, mantras – in this novel, lovers Jodi and Rory cling to the line “ILU, I won’t let you go” – and magical thinking. She deploys italics as thought bubbles, sending up more of them as the tension thickens until the text tilts and swims.

So, so tired.

Not just tired, broken. 

No, don’t think about that. 

She writes grief and shock and death, particularly death, with an acute sense of familiarity – an ache. She writes love with a sweet ache, too, from the electric first bite right through to the bittersweet bedding-in. Love, urgent and invigorating, crackles across The Silence of Snow, despite the fact that both main characters spend the whole book knackered: Jodi is a first-year doctor working huge hours at Nelson hospital and Rory is an anaesthetist too stressed to sleep. We hear alternately from each of them. Here’s Jodi on bungee jumping, but actually on love:

“There’s this moment after you first leap when everything is really silent and pure, when you feel as if you’re not really falling at all. As if you’re suspended in glass. Then everything rushes towards you, the whole world spilling into your eyes, and it’s scary and wonderful all at once. And that’s how you make me feel.”

A page or two in I felt the same helpless compulsion as I do sometimes with my phone: I carried this book everywhere with me, knocked off a chapter while making the kids’ pasta, propped it open on the bed as I folded washing. I read it until midnight knowing I’d be up again with the one-year-old in a few hours, and cried over the last pages at the breakfast table.

Still life, Sunday morning, feat. the novel of the year so far (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

The Silence of Snow is Merriman’s second novel for adults (although I maintain that her most recent, excellent YA book, A Trio of Sophies, really belongs on adult shelves too). Her first adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction. I still think about it, particularly one scene; the cold-water shock of it, and the masterful imagery she used to write that moment.

Merriman likes picking up a controversial topic and worrying at it, picking out the greys in what we might otherwise perceive as black and white. She leans into the taboo. A major plotline of Moonlight Sonata involved incest: brother and sister twins, adults. In A Trio of Sophies, it was a high school teacher who has sex with his students and hits them. But there is nothing taboo about The Silence of Snow, unless you are lucky enough to think addiction belongs in that category.

What happens is that Rory, the strung-out wide-awake anaesthetist, starts dosing himself. At first, it’s sleeping pills and lorazepam, but before long he’s injecting propofol, the knockout drug that killed Michael Jackson. (Steve Braunias wrote a brilliant piece about propofol, and anaesthetists’ particular taste for it, in 2015.) It’s a drug that works beautifully in surgery but the stats on what happens to those who abuse it are horrific. Merriman has her book’s character Jodi search it up so you don’t have to: propofol kills 45% of anaesthetists who abuse it. Some overdose, others commit suicide.

Merriman’s output in the last 13 months (Images: Supplied)

There is a deep and compassionate knowingness about the way Merriman writes addiction. The saying is that addiction does not discriminate; more bluntly, it does not give a shit. It turns the best of us into liars and thieves, tips us off cliffs, leaves us screaming, self-loathing. Another thing about addiction is it burns away hope and optimism. If you’ve brushed up close against addiction, know that this book will sting. There are so many scenes where we see Rory make the right decision almost, and you know how fine a rail he’s walking, and you see the fall coming, and he doesn’t, and so here we are again, screaming.

Book club-ish questions that Merriman floats, very subtly: Why do you think Rory turned to drugs? Do you think it was inevitable? What would you have done in Jodi’s place? What role do you think Rory’s occupation played? And the system that has him doing massively long shifts?

Rory is traumatised by a mistake he made during a surgery; he does not allow himself to mitigate his guilt with the fact he’d just done a 70-hour week of night shifts. But Merriman, a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital, does. “They might as well have been drunk,” she has an older nurse observe of doctors finishing similar stints.

I love the way Merriman writes summer. I love the way she notices skies and plants. Her stories are populated with tūī and Norfolk pines and bottlebrushes, sandflies and wētā and nikau. People sweat. They tramp. They have beers, hangovers, flat whites, fish and chips. A seagull stares “with its painted eyes”. Elsewhere: “The sky was hydrangea-blue, cirrus clouds riding high.” And: “Sea spray hung in the air.” And: “He stumbled towards the steps, pausing to throw up again in the camellias before approaching the front porch.”

Here is the real magic: without overwriting, Merriman somehow ropes in all the senses, elevates them. Arousal, I guess you’d call it. Flow. Fresh air. So the rocks are warm on your tummy; the sky is “a muslin-like layer of clouds … trapping the heat of the day”; your gin tastes like juniper and cloves, cucumber and quinine; you’re thinking about a kiss, the way your fingers “fanned across his belly”; and all you’re doing while you’re reading this novel, and after, is thinking about it.

The Silence of Snow, by Eileen Merriman (RHNZ, $36) is available from September 1 from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. 

Keep going!