Have you ever been around someone who you know deep down inside is a good person, but who, for a variety of reasons, seems intent on pushing everybody in their life away. Someone whose stubborn and prickly personality gets in the way of their own happiness? This Heavy Silence, the debut novel by Nicole Mazzarella, captures this situation in a deeply moving and provocative way. The result is a touching and engaging novel about family, relationships, the choices we make, and the unintended consequences which result from this combustible mix.
The story focuses on Dottie Connell, a tough, loyal – some would say hopelessly stubborn – farmer in rural Ohio. Dottie has organized her life around the three hundred acres of family land she farms to the sacrifice of almost everything else. She is lonely, isolated, and under siege. Despite all of her hard work, largely thanks to an unscrupulous Uncle and a father devastated by his son’s early death, she doesn’t even own the farm she cares so much about. This fuels her existence and one day she swears she will own her families land.
Into this mix is thrown an unanticipated twist when she suddenly finds herself as the guardian – at least temporarily – of her childhood friend’s daughter. When her cousin returns to town to claim the farm, Dottie is forced with some tough choices about her life and future. As the novel follows the story over the course of a decade, Dottie must face the ugly truth behind some of these choices.
I will leave the details to a minimum as they are an important component to the story’s impact. Mazzarella plays out the plot twists and the emotional and physical history of her characters slowly. As in real life, crucial details are not out in plane sight but linger between the lines and are left unsaid. The tension and conflict, however, can be felt and its impact seen. The reader’s experience is much like moving into a new community and only slowly making the connections and learning the history that explains so much of the day to day goings on.
And that is part of the power of the book. Mazzarella creates and sustains that tension without exhausting the reader. We can sense the tension and the conflict but the underlying issues are only slowly and subtly revealed. Mazzarella never hits you over the head with anything, she respects the intelligence of the reader enough to let them put things together.
The real strength of the book, however, is the remarkable character of Dottie. The portrayal of this stubborn, driven, and independent woman comes across so real that you almost think it is history rather than literature. Anyone who has lived or spent time in or around the rural Midwest will recognize the characters and community described.
Mazzarella masterfully contrasts Dottie’s interior and exterior lives. At first the reader assumes that Dottie will be a sympathetic character; one of those hard working, devoted, but misunderstood women who fight against an unjust community unwilling to see a unconventional female succeed. But Mazzarella avoids creating a caricature or one dimensional character. Dottie is loyal, diligent and hard working and she does have a certain level of honesty and common sense that some in the community seem to lack. But she is also selfish and cold and unable to risk being hurt in her relationships. She is so intent on owning the farm that she doesn’t see the damage around her. She has protected herself to the point of driving away those she loves.
Mazzarella captures the powerful emotions that Dottie has bottled up inside herself – the longing to be loved and touched and cared for – and contrasts this with the stoic and rather caustic side of her public persona. We see how the pain of the past has prevented Dottie from opening up to those who want to love her. Dottie is complex and layered; endearing and frustrating.
This Heavy Silence would be a depressing book were it not for its note of redemption and grace. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but in the end Dottie comes to a realization about her life; she comes to understand the repercussions of her choices and her actions. Thankfully, Mazzarella doesn’t attach some cheesy miraculous happy ending to this poignant tale. Rather, Dottie must still deal with life as it is but she can begin to work toward undoing the damage and begin to mend the relationships in her life. She can see the world with a new perspective and begin to appreciate the small graces in her life.
This Heavy Silence is a gem of a book. A powerful story about the choices we make and the relationships we build while at the same time a poignant, insightful portrait of the struggles of life in rural America. I heartily recommend it.