Susie Taverner is a highly respected financial journalist, and Aubrey De’Ath Grimsby-Grenville (otherwise known as Orbs) reluctantly makes a living by working part-time in the City; both are in their thirties and have lived together for a couple of years. However, each has another life which they keep secret from the outside world: as Belinda, Susie is a ventriloquist, with a fox puppet called Bruce and together they present a popular show called Bruce and Belinda’s Question Time. By using Bruce to ask all the acerbic, probing questions, whilst she intervenes more gently and sweetly, Belinda ensures that Bruce plays “bad cop” to her “good cop”, thus protecting herself from any resulting opprobrium.
In his secret life, Orbs is Cyril, a fool: not a “sinister clown” hiding goodness knows what behind a white face, but a true Fool, traditionally a trusted, truth-telling character, one who appears in most cultures, ready to shine a light on the “stupidities and falseness of the age”. Some fools speak but Cyril doesn’t, although he occasionally does makes noises or sing. However, Orbs tends to avoid using this pseudonym because he regards his fool character not as being separate but as being the essential, best part of himself; he finds that being silent intensifies all his other senses, making him feel more authentic. Through his impromptu performances, either alone or with fellow performers, in London or when he travels the country to perform at fairs, he loves having the opportunity to introduce some spontaneous fun into people’s lives, to brighten their day and to put them in touch with their capacity for “fooling around”.
Susie and Orbs have found ways of accommodating and absorbing their alter-egos into their everyday relationship, although as the popularity of Bruce and Belinda’s Question Time increases, Orbs begins to feel that Bruce is becoming an ever-present extension of Susie, stifling direct communication and threatening the balance of their relationship. Then, when Susie has an accident which prevents her working as a ventriloquist and the shock of it causes her to lose her voice, their lives are turned upside down and, if they are to survive as a couple, they must find new ways to interact with each other.
This is a beautifully written novella which explores how a crisis, or any disturbance in the balance of a relationship, forces people to confront and examine their inner fears and to find alternative ways to communicate effectively with each other. Both Susie and Orbs had been experiencing fears about being “exposed” before Susie’s accident but through their “performing” selves had managed their anxieties, sometimes in a successfully functional way, but increasingly in ways which were dysfunctional, both for them as individuals and for their relationship, so each of them needs to make adjustments. Susie has to learn to communicate other than through the voice of Bruce and, with Susie being unable to continue to provide the financial stability they’d both relied on, Orbs needs to adopt a less dilettante attitude towards his work in the City. With commendable psychological insights the author draws the reader into the couple’s struggles as they try to discover how to be more honest with themselves, and how to become more open in the ways they communicate with each other. In order to do this each must be willing to both own and share their vulnerabilities, without the need for using their “performing” selves to speak for them. Although there were moments when their search for such authenticity in their relationship felt very painful and challenging, their desire to achieve it never felt in doubt.
Another important character in the development of the story is Freddie, Orb’s elder brother whose schizophrenia means that, since childhood, he has heard voices in his head. At one point in the story, when Orbs reflects on how this affected him and his parents in the past, and how he came to feel so marginalised that he left home at the earliest opportunity, he comments “voices have played too great a part in my life”. This offered an insight into why silence had perhaps come to play such an important part in his life and why he felt so fearful when Susie was about to meet Freddie for the first time. However, what they all discovered was that Bruce could offer a positive conduit for communication and I appreciated this demonstration that using a different “voice” doesn’t always have to have negative connotations but that, ultimately, what is important is finding ways to bring different aspects of our inner selves together to achieve an authentic wholeness.
With beautiful language Jennifer Kavanagh has created a gentle, but very powerful, story about how, with honesty, tolerance, respect, tenderness and love, people who are very different can support one another within a relationship. This is a tender but thought-provoking love story, one which demonstrates that nothing in life or relationships is static, that the balance of need can change and that each of us has the capacity to respond in an authentic and caring way. But, before we can be truly honest with others, we need to be honest with ourselves. I think that this wise story would offer book groups some rich themes for discussion.
Linda Hepworth 4/4
The Silence Diaries by Jennifer Kavanagh
Roundfire Books 9781789041828 pbk Oct 2019