USEREVIEW 058: The Death Card
Samantha Garner’s debut novel The Quiet Is Loud (Invisible Publishing, 2021) has a paradox in its very title, so you can expect to find more of the same within. Through the medium of a tarot-savvy traditional review, Deirdre Danklin reaches her hands in to pull out the paradoxes, and the paradextrous characters, that lie at the heart of the text.
ISBN 978-1-98878-471-7 | 336 pp | $23.95 CAD BUY here
I always get the Death card in tarot, and my kind friends always assure me that it’s a great card, really! It means rebirth, rejuvenation! Sometimes, something scary has something wonderful at its heart. Tarot plays a big role in The Quiet is Loud by Samantha Gardner. The opening sequence of the novel shows our protagonist, Freya, a half-Filipino, half-Norwegian Canadian woman trying to read the cards for strangers in a way that will give them hope:
I didn’t like talking about cards in terms of good or bad. The cards were just themselves, the barest of definitions ready to be interpreted. Every combination of cards could either bode well, encourage caution, or suggest a new course of action.
Gardner’s worldbuilding is excellent. The reader learns a lot about Norwegian and Filipino folklore against the backdrop of a recognizably modern Canadian city. The Wi-Fi, the coffee shops and the chicharon, all help to ground the reader in a relatable present as the prose takes off into the magical and fantastic. Here’s a taste of how Freya feels about her heritage:
Freya … felt something thrumming up inside her, some mix of excitement and danger. She felt the same way when Dad told his Filipino folk tales: the sun and the moon as living things with living bodies, gods who come to feast and hunt with people. How thrilling it must have been to be the first Freya, with a cloak of falcon feathers, real magic.
The magical and mundane live together throughout this inventive novel. On an emotional and thematic level in the book, it is not so much the magic itself — tarot, prophetic dreams, or magnifying other people’s talents — but the way that society reacts to this magic that matters. In Freya’s world, people with special mental abilities are sneeringly referred to as “vekers” and are meant to be avoided at all costs. The ever-present threat of violence hovers in the air. Vekers get punched in the face in the middle of the street, their car windshields get smashed and they get locked up and subjected to experimental medical tests. Freya’s world has chosen to see the incredible abilities of those (who the more enlightened characters refer to as the “paradextrous”) as a threat. This poses a challenge for Freya who, ever since she was ten years old, knew that she could see the future in her dreams.
Gardner taps into an ambient feeling of fear that follows Freya everywhere she goes. Her introspective first-person narration lets the reader into Freya’s heart and mind. We watch her as she starts to have visions during the day, as she lies to her cousin Mary about where she picked up her bruises and as she joins a support group for other paradextrous people and makes friends even as her visions become more intense and dangerous. She’s attracted to a group member, Shaun, who has a brash way of defending the paradextrous in public. He’s a zealot and, even though Freya is afraid of the trouble he might cause, she understands where he’s coming from.
After all, I was no sparkling jewel myself. Maybe we were all fucked up, us paradextrous people … Maybe this was what a lifetime of being outsiders did to us.
The reader gets a closer look at Freya’s outsider childhood through short third-person chapters interspersed throughout the present timeline. We see her happy early family life — her writer father finding success as a novelist, her loving mother teaching her about tarot and the meaning behind her Norwegian name — and we see it fall apart. Freya dreams about her mother’s death and, one week later, it happens. After that, the childhood chapters become darker and more suffocating. There is always the possibility that her father, prejudiced against the paradextrous, will discover her secret. There is always the hole that Freya’s mother left when she died. The family situation gets more complicated after her father publishes an explosively controversial novel about his childhood, mining his alcoholic sister’s life for salacious details. Suddenly, Freya’s family is famous. The controversial novel even follows Freya’s cousin Mary to university. Here, Mary explains in characteristically lifelike dialogue what it’s like to have her identity discovered by strangers:
Oh my god, it’s the most infuriating fucking thing … I’m standing there minding my own business and I hear someone calling my name. It’s a Filipino girl from my Intro to Sociology class. And she’s got a bunch of family members with her. Parents, titas, kuyas, everyone. So she introduces me to her family and everyone shakes my hand. The titos and titas are looking at me weird, I assume because they’re trying to work out if I’m Filipino too. You know that look. So I tell them my mom is Filipino and I’m from Toronto. And that’s when one of them goes, ‘Are you related to Brian Tanangco?’ … The Filipinos here … love that he wrote a book about growing up Filipino in Winnipeg.
In this way, two threads of Freya’s identity — being paradextrous and being a famous novelist’s daughter — move in parallel tension throughout the book. Freya is constantly trying to hide who she is. For instance, she gives a fake name to the support group she attends for fear that strangers will judge her before they get to know her. This theme will resonate with any reader who has ever known something about themselves that scared them or something they felt like they had to hide. The reader moves closely alongside Freya as she comes to terms with her unique skill and as she wrestles emotionally with the legacy her father has left her and the broken relationship they’ve had ever since her mother died. We see Freya as a child and we watch her grow because of Gardner’s intimate prose, we care as Freya struggles to choose between accepting Shaun’s extreme worldview or creating her own path, we hold our breath as she dodges her father’s calls and we fight the urge to close our eyes with fear as another daytime vision sends Freya running into the street.
I won’t give away what happens at the end of this rollercoaster of a novel, or how its many interwoven plotlines resolve themselves. However, I will say that the book’s conclusion reminds me of the Death card in tarot. As this story wraps up, the reader understands that, though Freya’s story contains a lot of fear and darkness, there is something wonderful at its heart.