As a book reviewer and editor, I try to approach new books without grand expectations or assumptions about their content or style. But, since I’m also a tarot reader and fan of speculative fiction, it was inevitable that I would draw conclusions about Samantha Garner’s debut novel The Quiet Is Loud before I even read the first page.
Shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, The Quiet Is Loud is described as a speculative coming-of-age novel about Freya Tanangco, a young, mixed-race, Filipino-Norwegian woman whose prophetic visions have forced her into hiding for much of her life. Society fears people like Freya—people with enhanced mental abilities, who are called “vekers”—and after predicting her own mother’s death as a child, Freya comes to fear herself and the danger she might pose to others. As an adult, her primary point of contact with the outside world (besides her cousin Mary) is the tarot card readings she does for clients through webchat. Tarot is the one thing that allows Freya to focus and contain her prophetic powers in a safe way. But when her visions begin to affect her daily life and she is nearly hit by a car, she must step outside of her protective bubble and make connections with others in order to help both herself and the people around her.
From the plot synopsis, I expected The Quiet Is Loud to be kind of a contemporary, hyper-mystical version of The Chrysalids, the 1955 post-apocalyptic novel about a group of children who are persecuted for their telepathic powers. While both novels feature characters with special powers who are hated and, in some cases, tortured due to societal prejudices, The Quiet Is Loud is much more subtle than most sci-fi stories about super powers. Garner’s characters are regular people who want to understand themselves and their powers and simply live their lives without fear. This longing, along with pressure from Cousin Mary, is what impels Freya to join a veker support group. Meeting people like herself allows Freya to experience a kind of normalcy for the first time, though this normalcy is ultimately threatened when someone tries to push them all into the public spotlight by exposing them on TV.
Woven throughout these present-day events are scenes from Freya’s past: her childhood before and after her mother’s death, her failed attempts to form friendships in school, and her fraught relationship with her father Brian, a famous writer whose novel Kuya (“older brother” in Tagalog) revealed his family’s secrets to the world. What I love about this, and what Garner has done so brilliantly, is that the present-day events have the inverse structure of the past events. While in the chapters from the past we watch as Freya becomes increasingly isolated, in the present-day chapters we see her grow into her newfound community (as risky and tenuous as it might be). The effect that the exposure of secrets had on Brian’s estranged sister, Judith, in the past also adds to Freya’s sense of urgency to take control of her personal narrative in the present.
The result is a complex and ambitious novel about how we construct our identities when we feel like outsiders, whether that be as a person with exceptional capabilities, a child of immigrants, or a mixed-race person caught between multiple cultures. As Freya wonders about her father, who has spent almost all of his life in Canada: “what if he’d always been trying to construct the Philippines as much as she was? She’d always felt like a bit of an outsider, trying to understand being Norwegian and Filipino and knowing where she fit in. She’d never considered the same might be true for Dad. What if he felt too Filipino to be Canadian and too Canadian to be Filipino?” (153).
In their own ways, each of Garner’s characters attempt to share, conceal, or simply understand their stories and how they might fit into the larger fabric of society. And, as Freya learns, you can’t know who you are when you live in isolation from everyone else. Discovering and having pride in yourself happens when you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same. In The Quiet Is Loud, Garner announces herself not only as a writer with a clear, fresh vision for what speculative fiction could be but also as a writer who will make it happen.
The Quiet Is Loud
by Samantha Garner
Invisible Publishing, May 2021, 320 pages, $23.95 (print)
Erin Della Mattia is a writer and freelance editor from Brampton, Ontario. Her work has appeared in The Puritan and is forthcoming in the fairytale anthology Sharper Than Thorns (July 2022). Find her online at erindellamattia.com.