In 1999 Sarajevo, a journalist named Gota seeks out her former lover Kosmos and aims to investigate the aftermath of the devastating Bosnian war that ended four years earlier. Kosmos connects Gota to Edina, who tells Gota of the sexual assault of thousands of women during the war, with Gota following her and other victims to The Hague to confront their abusers.
Though Echlin insulates the reader from bearing the full force of these stories under the guise of fiction, she also makes it clear that these things really happened; this is not the stuff of imagined worst nightmares but the reality of an ancient tradition of women being treated as spoils of war. Her writing is at its most powerful in these moments, her anger couched in terms of brutality ... perhaps 'novel' is an imperfect categorization for Speak, Silence. The story of Gota and Kosmos, rooted in the tried-and-true device of a love triangle, is a comfortably familiar ribbon of fiction in the book. The story of Edina and the women she represents, the experiences she describes, and the testimony of the other victims in scenes set during the trial, however, feels far more like reportage. The result is an incredibly forceful book that insists readers sit up and pay attention; despite the gains made with the Foča trial, most of us continue to turn a blind eye to abuses taking place around the world. With her latest work, Echlin demands more of us.
Speak, Silence is well-researched and beautifully crafted. The narrative slips through time, sometimes moving quickly through events and sometimes in slow and deliberate detail. Echlin’s prose is both succinct and eloquent, and her dialogue shines, sometimes more in what isn’t said than what is on the page. Speak, Silence is a crushing call to bear witness to the brutal crimes committed against women in the Yugoslav wars. And yet, beauty is found in the incredible strength and friendship that defines Gota and Edina’s bond, as well as the bravery and allyship of the women who stood before the court to tell their terrible truths.
The scenes of our protagonist’s Toronto life in her Annex home, though detailed and honest and true, never quite weave themselves in to that other narrative, in Sarajevo and The Hague, nor achieve sufficient density to be its counterweight. And it can seem at times that the author’s been overwhelmed by her own material, pushing her language in poetic and aphoristic directions that mostly don’t work with the rawness of the story she has to tell. But—and this is one of the biggest 'buts' I’ve ever written into a book review—you need to read this book ... Before reading this book, readers may or may not understand the role rape has always played in war, and the specific use to which it’s put in genocidal wars. But after reading this book, they will feel it. And once they feel it, they may come closer to understanding, if they didn’t already, that though someone killed in a war leaves a crater, ending stories and stopping others from ever being written, rape is poison that continues to spread long after ... You’ll probably get pissed off at this book, especially the ending. And it’s a book about rape and trauma and the possibility that justice is either impossible or impotent even when it’s achieved, so you won’t be happier for having read it, but—and I think I’m right about this—you’ll be better for it.