Isle of Skye, 1999

A respectfully reverent review of Sarah Maitland’s latest book, A Book of Silence, appeared in the Sunday Times Book Review. Written by Dominique Browning, the review and book both speak to many of the aspects of silence that I have written about here in earlier posts. It is something I think about a great deal and feel increasingly drawn to.

Sara Maitland is a writer who reached her 50s and found herself with a disintegrating marriage and a home empty of children. Free to make any kind of life she wanted for herself, she decided to seek a life with silence at its center.

Her friends and family found this prospect unnerving and were not supportive of the idea. Instead of thinking of silence and solitude as a selfish choice, a “the place of death, of nothingness” as one friend put it, Mait­land was convinced that silence was a positive presence, not a negative condition.

From the review:

She begins her life-changing adventure by spending 40 days and 40 nights alone in a tiny house set high on a ridge on the Isle of Skye…Surprisingly, Maitland’s journey provokes a crisis in her work. A successful novelist, she had long depended on her ability to imagine alternate worlds. But the deeper she went into silence, the more her fiction eluded her. “This gave me the idea,” she explains, “that there might be something profoundly different between the silence of the hermits and the silence of creative artists.” The first kind of silence requires an emptying out of the self in order to be receptive to God; the other fortifies the self in order to be inventively godlike. “Silence has no narrative,” she concludes. “Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.” Building on this speculation, Maitland’s ambitious, wide-ranging book investigates the varied nature of creativity and dives into considerations of both madness and joy.

Browning’s conclusion made me even more compelled to read this book for myself:

This is not a silent book, intimate and generous as it is. We even hear Maitland strike matches to light her cigarettes under a canopy of stars. To my mind, it’s an open question whether reading can be part of any experience of silence. Nor did Maitland’s book leave me speechless. Instead, I found myself arguing, conversing, exclaiming at every page. I wanted to be with her every step of the way. And I can hardly wait to see what comes next from this marvelous writer, thinker and seeker. I only hope it isn’t . . . silence.