The Silence of Snow by Eileen Merriman – 2020

The silence of snowJodi is a new doctor, working at Nelson Hospital, feeling out of her depth: “I keep worrying I’m going to kill someone.” But helping her out is handsome Rory, the anaesthetist with an appealing accent. Jodi’s controlling fiancé, Fraser, is living in a distant city and is dismissive of the stress Jodi is under. The silence of snow is set-up to be a medical romance and sure enough: “Kissing Rory had been like kissing a wolf – dangerous, and forbidden, and bound to get her into trouble sooner or later.” Things start to look good for Jodi and Rory, but this is Eileen Merriman, who wrote Moonlight sonata, so you know there is something wrong with this picture …

The silence of snow traverses some of the same themes as A mistake by Carl Shuker, considering the type of personality you need to have to cut people open, inject them with potential poisons, and make life and death decisions under stress. And as in A mistake, at the heart of The silence of snow is medical misadventure, and the fact that although such misadventures are the result of chains of events, the official processes try to find one person to judge, while the guilt weighs heavily on all in the chain. But The silence of snow is a slow reveal, and unlike A mistake, only gradually do you learn the whole story.

From the start the young medics are all tired and stressed, they drink a lot, don’t sleep much, and it really did make me consider the few times I have ended up in the ED of Nelson Hospital! For quite a while you worry for the patients who end up under the characters’ care, as their concerns seem to mainly revolve around their relationships. But this view evolves along with the story, and as Jodi becomes more confident and proficient, she and the reader get to know and care for some of the repeat patients. And then there is Rory …

Rory is waiting for the outcome of an investigation into a tragedy which haunts him and gives him nightmares, whenever he manages to get to sleep. He is always taking painkillers to “take the edge off”, and longs for the “absence of sound that comes with snow falling on snow.” Merriman manages to make Rory’s life splitting in two believable. He wants a life with Jodi, plans to travel back to Scotland with her, and at the same time his life is spinning, or rather drifting, out of control under the beckoning of the syringes of the “chalky white substance.” He is full of self-loathing yet gets good at slick lies, he looks down on other addicts, and he himself doesn’t know what he is aiming for: temporary or eternal peace? And the reader (at least this one) becomes divided too, in part highly judgemental, and yet understanding the attraction of the euphoria of silence, of the peaceful moment of waking from drug induced oblivion.

The novel describes the conundrum of people under great stress in an occupation that offers them free access to addictive drugs – it is chilling how Rory has such facility with the technical effectiveness of the various drugs he takes. And Jodi becomes aware of, and complicit in, the blurring of the edges around “do no harm.” Rory’s story becomes situational, with binge drinking “hardly an odd behaviour amongst junior doctors”, and doctors who work extremely long shifts “might as well have been drunk.” Jodi’s father asks, “does medicine attract more of the types of personalities that are prone to anxiety and depression, or does it create anxiety and depression?” There is a clinic in Dunedin which specialises “in doctors with addiction and mental health issues.”

The writing in The silence of snow becomes totally immersive, I live in Nelson and could imaging the settings in and around Whakatū perfectly, I even had a look to see if Gin Lane actually existed! The use of quotes from the poems both Jodi and Rory love, is poignant, especially when Jodi ends up reading aloud one of their favourites, The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, at a particularly difficult time. Although the pacing is measured, it is still a roller coaster ride of a read. And has absolute gems like one of the doctors sharing a ‘fact of the day’ with Jody, that whales who sing in the wrong key get lost and are alone in the ocean. A beautiful metaphor, for “[i]t only takes one slip-up” for a life to drift off key, and drift away, even from those you love. And in the end The silence of snow is a love story, just not the type you thought you had in your hands at the beginning. A lovely, awful, and thought provoking read.

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