Book Reviews

The Seduction of Silence, by Bem Le Hunte

This article appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Persimmon.

The Seduction of Silence
By Bem Le Hunte
HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. 416 pp.

Review by Eve Kushner

It’s easy to see why Bem Le Hunte’s The Seduction of Silence has been a bestseller in India (where the author spent her childhood) and Australia (where she currently lives). In this debut novel about four generations of an Indian family, Le Hunte keeps us reading raptly to learn what will become of her restless, unsatisfied characters, all of whom are on the move, trying to find whatever they feel they’re missing. Some seek inner peace by renouncing the world. Others escape from restrictive relationships or try to locate long-lost relatives. But events rarely turn out the way these characters expect, and they change and change, losing innocence and accumulating heavy, lonely secrets. Because the author gives us a front-row view of these characters’ lives, we come away from this epic work feeling as if we have taken a full, transformative trip that is hard to describe to those who stayed home.

Credit: Arlene Blum
Two sadhus (Hindu shiva worshippers) who have taken vows of poverty and are seeking enlightenment.

Le Hunte immediately creates suspense, starting her narrative in contemporary times and indicating that the long-dead Aakash (the Hindu sage at the head of this family tree) plans to reincarnate in his great-great-grandchild’s body. Aakash’s granddaughter, Rohini, becomes privy to this when a medium channels Aakash’s spirit, but Rohini can’t convince her pregnant daughter that the claim holds any validity. (As the supernatural aspect immediately makes obvious, Le Hunte cheerfully eschews realism, and she makes it fun for us to suspend disbelief, as well.)

Having established this intriguing premise, Le Hunte backs up about a century. Part One of this five-part work focuses on Aakash as a young man running Prakriti, an ayurvedic Himalayan farm. The saintly Aakash is tricked into marrying the tyrannical Jyoti Ma, who tries to impose her will on servants, visitors, and the son she soon bears to Aakash. When the son, Ram, befriends Bahadur, a low-caste boy, and behaves as if they were equals, the horrified Jyoti Ma issues increasingly restrictive orders, alienating everyone around her. Eventually, these three male characters leave Prakriti, moving into the forest to spend their lives in meditation.

Thus ends Part One, which differs from the rest of the book in both tone and content. Using elevated language, Le Hunte sprinkles generous amounts of Hindu philosophy into the first section. She refers often to fate, which determines people’s life paths, and to Silence (always capitalized), which characters can find through meditation (as when Ram and Bahadur discover “a consistent hum of smooth, uncluttered internal space”). Part One frequently feels like an allegory or a fairy tale; bountiful Prakriti seems archetypally perfect (Le Hunte even compares it to Eden), and the primeval forest teems with snakes and gurus who possesss unearthly powers. It isn’t always clear why Le Hunte employs mythical tones here, but it seems as though she wants to set Prakriti apart in time and space, as when she refers to “the Silence that sealed the hills of Prakriti from the rest of the world.” If Part One is about paradise, the remainder of the book is about paradise lost. The descendants of Aakash and Jyoti Ma long to return to Prakriti, as if they can feel whole again only by recovering whatever the family lost when it left that primal place.

When Jyoti Ma drives her relatives away, she creates breaches that flow down the family tree. Her second child, Tulsi Devi, suffers for never having known her brother, Ram. Then history repeats itself. Tulsi Devi alienates her own children, Jivan and Rohini, who don’t even know each other. Rohini and daughter Saakshi suffer their own strain. And, like Aakash and Jyoti Ma, most spouses in this book feel miserable together—and sometimes miserable apart.

Credit: Arlene Blum
See what all that yoga practice can do!

Isolated from each other, the characters have no idea that they are each part of a pattern that started with Jyoti Ma, much as if she cast a curse on the family. Le Hunte takes great interest in such patterns. She shows that even as things constantly break apart—including family bonds, innocence, and illusions—there is a grander design. By observing several times that “everything happens for a reason,” she advances a trite philosophical position. But as characters unknowingly reenact their elders’ lives, she also demonstrates a poignant emotional truth: we carry painful, burdensome secrets, and because we must conceal them, for fear of losing face or hurting other people, we believe we are the only ones with certain experiences and feelings.

Le Hunte fills her novel with pain: her characters experience the traumas of rape, unplanned pregnancy, polio, blindness, and marital infidelity. Nevertheless, she manages to keep the tone so buoyant—with ample humor, skillful foreshadowing, and some wonderful phrasing—that this lengthy tale never loses energy. Le Hunte is a master storyteller with a knack for balance. She gives equal time to each generation, making the central characters vivid and quickly understandable, and she adapts her voice to capture both Hindu mystical thought and contemporary urban concerns.

This is not to say that Le Hunte has written a perfect book. Her philosophy (must she capitalize “Silence”?) and characterization can be quite heavy-handed. Men tend to be sages, on the one hand, or rapists and tyrants, on the other. British colonists and rich people often align in an axis of evil. In one particularly unsubtle passage, Le Hunte writes, “The Colonel told his daughter stories about England and the British—glorifying their values, their conventions, their protocols, their sense of decency and style. Never saying a word about how they had raped India’s land and made prisoners of India’s heroes.”

Overall, though, this ultra-ambitious novel works beautifully, and its avid readers may readily forgive these flaws, just as they would overlook a dear friend’s quirks. It will be interesting to see whether Le Hunte can create just as impressive a second novel—and whether she will again draw on India for inspiration.

Eve Kushner is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley, California. She has reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hyde Park Review of Books, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and East Bay Express.