Speak, Silence by Kim Echlin (208 pages)
Telling the Truth: Women’s Stories of Love, War and Redemption
“Speak, Silence is an imaginative response…to changing consciousness. Let us reimagine our humanity together.”
These lines from the introduction sum up the hopeful, enduring spirit of Kim Echlin’s fictional novel about the heinous crimes committed against women during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the formation of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the resulting, groundbreaking trial at The Hague in 2000.
The story plots fictional lives against the backdrop of the real Foča trial. Gota, a journalist with ties to the region through her former lover, Kosmos, goes to Sarajevo on assignment to cover the proceedings. Once there she finds herself immersed in the post-war realities of the region and the lives of the women who dare to testify.
We’re also introduced to Edina who forms a love triangle with Gota and Kosmos. We learn about the backstory of their youth and the unlikely intersection of their lives years after the wars have ended. Edina’s personal stake in the trial brings all three together in fresh ways, opening up new dimensions in their relationship. For Gota, especially: a deeper understanding of Kosmos and an unexpected bond with Edina.
On the one hand, the novel shows how war is a human link that touches all families, and about how women silently carry their pain and their stories. On the other hand, it’s also about courage, resilience, and support. Even when efforts seem to fall short or are plagued by indifference or bureaucracy, it’s about taking a stand anyway.
Courageous Take on What it Means to Be Human
“See us. Listen to us.” (p. 11)
This is a great pick if you’re into political fiction and women’s issues. The book deals with some heavy topics which might be triggering for some, but Echlin delivers a fantastically imagined story about the tragedies of war with skill and grace.
But besides war and loss, at its root it feels like a story about human connections and possibilities. Gota/ Kosmos/ Edina, the unlikely trio; families in all their imperfections and idiosyncrasies — mothers, daughters, lovers; new networks birthed from the ashes of the war — judges, lawyers, interpreters, and journalists collectively working to bring the accused to trial; and the women who share experiences only they can understand.
“There were many languages and many histories in those (court) rooms and people found ways to listen to each other.” (p. 190)
The writing is so fluid; I loved the simple truth and poetry of certain passages, and the imagery used throughout the book. Gota and Edina frequently face off over games of chess, and chess is used as a metaphor for the cross-examination of the women in court. Both sides parry for position, back and forth. For the defense: to catch the witnesses in a net of doubt; for the women: to be heard, to be believed.
Echlin’s skill is in making the dark and painful details of the war into a redemptive story about humanity’s fight for justice through deeply drawn, believable characters. They feel like real people. And sitting on the outside as a reader/observer, it feels intentional — that we relate to each other as humans who all have wants, needs, jobs, families, lives. And to tamp down on the idea that these events, now part of our historical record, could never happen again by sweeping memories under the rug.
The Bottom Line: 5/5 Brookie Stars
Speak, Silence is an important read. It highlights a past that many of us either have no knowledge of or like myself, only know about from long-ago TV broadcasts.
Near the end of the story Edina says, “We have to care enough to imagine each other’s lives.” Luckily, this book is a time capsule filled with the details of human lives interrupted and is an antidote to forgetfulness. It gives us something to hold onto in the present, and something to leave behind for the readers of the future. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.
Keisha Paterson is a lifetime writer of sticky-note poetry who enjoys comfort foods, self-care holidays, and Hawaiian dance. A prolific wanderer, she loves to discover and take home old orphaned books and eclectic records. She is an office manager, private yoga instructor, and freelance editor in Toronto.
Favourite Book: Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
Favourite brunch spot: Sisters and Co.