When We Were Silent: A Novel

Image of When We Were Silent: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 21, 2024
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

“The themes tackled in this story are important, painful, and relevant for our modern day, presented in beautiful prose and complex storytelling.”

Louise Manson has created a life she is proud of. She has a teenage daughter she loves, an amazing new wife, and a job as an English professor at a respected university. But trauma from the past continues to revisit even as she works to escape it. Just looking at the young women she teaches, or recognizing the slightest hint of chlorine in the air, remind her every day of things she wants to forget, because: “The body remembers everything the mind wants to forget.”

A call from the brother of an old high school friend interrupts one of Louise’s normal working days. He says the trauma from the past is happening again, and his sister, Shauna, who did not act to expose a rapist 30 years ago, is ready to revisit the past and make the criminals pay. Louise’s world is turned upside-down as she decides how fully she can respond to the crisis now facing her.

The narrative returns us to Louise’s high school days, where she is a scholarship student attending Highland School on a mission to expose the man who drove her friend Tina to suicide. On the first day of school Louise is confronted with the varying factions always present within an all-girls school. How does she know who to befriend, and what is the quickest path to outing the guilty swimming coach? Louise receives guidance from Melissa, one of the popular students, telling her who to avoid and who to get close to. This changes everything. Louise says, “When I think about everything that happened, when I wonder what I could have done differently, I always come back to this moment, the crumb Melissa threw that I devoured.”

The bulk of the story takes us through the days in which the trauma occurred when Louise was a teenager. McPhillips deals not only with teenage relationships and the issues surrounding those, but how adults treat teens, and the way that affects growth and self-actualization. This is especially apparent in the strict religious education system, and how corruption at the upper level changes the course of lives, as well as the behavior of the students. Louise says, “No matter how much they try to threaten and shame us, you can’t stop teenagers being themselves. Sometimes the more you have to rebel against, the harder you push.”

Louise’s recollection goes back and forth between the past and the present, juggling the desire for justice and the problems with bringing things back up in her adulthood. Finally, she understands something from her youth that is relevant to the decisions she is forced to make. She realizes that “There comes a time in every girl’s life when she’s had enough of playing by rules that are rigged against her. When she realizes the consequences of breaking them are no worse than following them.”

Louise realizes this is no different as a woman, especially one trying to make peace with a damaged past. She learns from returning to her past and sees that escape has not actually presented her with a life of peace. Sometimes, she now sees, you have to confront the worst and trust it will make a positive difference.

This book takes a dark theme of reckoning for those not prosecuted for their crimes. The narrative could be helpful not only for people with a traumatic past, but for those who know someone dealing with trauma. What is possible in a world where terrible things happen and the privileged do not have to pay for their crimes? How do we support those who need to face an awful history? The themes tackled in this story are important, painful, and relevant for our modern day, presented in beautiful prose and complex storytelling. McPhillips’ debut novel presents as one written by a veteran author, and will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate dark themes and a focus on characters’ emotions and thoughts.

Highly recommended. Content warning of sexual assault and rape.