Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher was sent to me by the Amazon Vine programme in exchange for my honest review.
I loved Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. It was strong, new fiction with a fresh authorial voice that really made her stand out. She wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects and she did it superbly well. I had hoped for more of the same with this, her third book.
I haven’t read her second book yet, by the way, but Ketchup Clouds is on my list, and despite not having enjoyed Silence is Goldfish half as much as My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, I am still fully intending to read it.
So, Silence is Goldfish.
It just didn’t work for me. Pitcher still writes great, strong prose that packs an emotional punch. In this book we are introduced to Tess, a fifteen, almost sixteen year old, who when confronted with difficult truths about her family, cannot find the words to express herself. So, instead she turns to muteness and makes it her power. By not speaking out, she finds that she can express herself in ways that have a surprising impact on her family and friends, and it give her unexpected strength.
So, all this is great, except for three things that I found really didn’t gel.
Firstly, Tess herself. For the most part I really liked her. I liked the fact that she was complicated as a person. I like the fact that she was prickly and difficult and sometimes downright unlikeable. I enjoy characters who are more than just a cardboard cut out to propel a particular emotion or message, and Tess is complex. On the other hand I found that some of the things about her just did not ring true for me. I am referring in particular to her vivid imaginings about her potential new father. They just seemed so babyish from a girl like Tess who has clearly gone through a lot, and in other parts of the book and in her conversations with her friend Isobel, shows that she is quite savvy.
I realise that this fantasising is desperate wish fulfilment on Tess’ part, but I thought she tried to cling onto the fiction long after the truth was clear for everyone to see, and it made her less believable for me. Her narrative arc is all over the place. Some of the time Tess reads like a 12 year old, others more like a 17 year old. It’s like Pitcher was having trouble deciding what kind of person Tess should be and ricochets between two extremes, never really reconciling them. A girl who fails to run away and confides in a plastic torch, but who goes out to the pub drinking and is clearly up to speed in terms of teen sex, thanks to the chats we see her having with Isobel, is one messed up kid. Maybe that’s what Pitcher wants to portray, a child/woman teetering on the edge of discovering herself, but it just didn’t read like this to me.
Secondly, I found Tess’ parents tricky too. Her mother is like a cypher, and at times borders on the non-existent, and yet it seems to me that the small parts of the book in which she does get to partake, that she would not be either so dumb about Tess’ situation or so passive in the face of what’s going on both with Tess and with her relationship with Tess’ dad. As for Tess’ dad, he was my absolute breaking point in this book. I could not understand how either Tess or her mum could love a man who is so weak, narcissistic and such a liar. He may have good points that outweigh his almost abusive treatment of Tess in particular, but these are so few, and come so late on in the book that he just could not redeem himself for me. His micro management of Tess also makes his willingness to let her go out drinking in a pub at one point in the book somewhat unlikely, and this soured things for me in terms of believability.
Thirdly, the goldfish convention really didn’t work for me either. It was, at times, just too surreal. It adds an element of ridiculousness that I found undermined the serious messages Pitcher was trying to get across. It’s a clumsy, ill conceived narrative device that just didn’t work for me at all. It would have been more believable for me if she had talked to a diary, even though it’s cliched.
I think this whole book would have worked better if Tess had been portrayed as being younger. It would have explained some of the fantasising and the talking to inanimate objects and babyish relationship with her parents. As it is, it’s almost like two books welded together, one which comes across as a Jacqueline Wilson type novel, and one which is an Annabel Pitcher novel struggling to get out from under the wreckage.
It has flashes of greatness, but it’s a bit of a mess. Nevertheless, I suspect fans will enjoy it, and it would make a great book for girls aged 12-15.