If you tell a small child that it will be her fault if something bad happens, she'll probably believe it. If you tell her that something terrible will happen if she doesn't keep quiet, and the terrible thing does happen, she just might feel that she's so much at fault that she'll stop talking at all. Seven-year-old Calli Clark hasn't spoken in three years. She communicates without words, and her friend and neighbor Petra Gregory has spoken for her ever since they met in kindergarten. But one summer morning, both girls disappeared from their homes without a word.
The backstory in Heather Gudenkauf's novel The Weight of Silence goes back years, but the main plot occurs during one intense, suspenseful, terrifying day in the lives of the Clark and Gregory families. The past relationship between Calli's mother Toni Clark and deputy sheriff Loras Louis has long been a problem for Toni's husband Griff and Louis' wife Christine, and it further complicates matters when Louis oversees the investigation into the girls' disappearance. Griff, Calli's father, is known for both his drinking and his temper, and he hasn't been seen all day either; is he somehow connected? Are the girls together, or is it a horrible coincidence that they both went missing on the same morning? And what of Toni's older child, her son Ben, who has been in and out of the nearby woods all day?
Gudenkauf uses alternating viewpoints to tell the story; chapters are narrated in the first person by Toni, Louis, Petra's father Martin, and Ben, while Calli's chapter's use third-person narration. I thought this was a smart choice, reinforcing that other characters speak for themselves, but Calli doesn't. I usually like the way that this format offers multiple perspectives on events, and it works well here for conveying the plot, but some of the narrators are more effective - and affecting - than others. I thought that Toni and Ben were the most realistically drawn characters, and while I found Calli very appealing, I had trouble recognizing her as only seven years old. She seemed to be written older than that, particularly in the descriptions of her relationships, especially her friendship with Petra. Petra's character, on the other hand, seemed under-written to me. I appreciate the higher level of drama in a story of two missing little girls, but wasn't as drawn into Petra and her family's side of it nearly as much as I was Calli's.
I think Heather Gudenkauf had high ambitions and a big reach for the story she wanted to tell in her first novel. While it certainly kept me engaged, I think I might have liked it better if she'd packed a little less into it overall. I think it would be provoke some great discussion for book groups, though, and I will be interested in seeing what this author does next.