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The Interpreter of Silences

by Jean McNeil

Despite a title that evokes emptiness, there is too much going on in Jean McNeil’s novel The Interpreter of Silences. The book is chock-full of drama, with barns burning, cars crashing, and drunken teenage girls plunging off cliffs to their death. Its characters must come to grips with a multitude of current events – from the destruction of marine life off the coasts of the Maritime provinces, to the genocide in Rwanda to planes crashing into skyscrapers in Manhattan. No less than four points of view are presented, each frequently identified only as “she” or “he.” Three couples are undone by passion that seems to emanate from the very forests and lakes of Cape Breton Island.

In short, McNeil has enough material here for two or even three books. It is as if she wanted to encompass the entirety of contemporary human experience, to make sense of life by placing gemlike descriptions of events and emotions next to each other, the way a jeweller creates a new and beautiful whole by arranging precious stones. It certainly is no accident that Eve, the central character, makes her living by finding emeralds, diamonds, and other gemstones for a jewelry designer.

Eve comes back to rural Cape Breton to look after her father, who fished eels all his life but now appears to have developed Alzheimer’s or some sort of dementia. The time is the summer of 2001, and Eve is not pleased at where she is. She fled the community at 18 to get an education, and ever since she has been more or less estranged from her father and sister. This is Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod country, and McNeil is brave to enter it.

Taken individually, McNeil’s observations are brilliant. Her take on the details of this world is fascinating – the unknown sex life of eels, the geological past of Nova Scotia, the red earth of Rwanda, and the red earth of Prince Edward Island. But, like gold filigree spun too fine for the gems it is supposed to support, the narrative collapses under the weight of so many facts, so much emotion, so many incidents.