Best known as a poet, Anne Simpson has also published two novels prior to Speechless: her debut, Canterbury Beach (2001), and her follow-up, Falling (2008). This new book shifts to an overtly global focus and beckons to a broader readership.
“A Hausa girl in Paiko, Niger State – Thomas began.
Yes, I know Niger State.
This girl, A’isha Nasir, has been given a controversial sentence for adultery.”
A’isha’s narrative is at the heart of Speechless, but for a portion of the book she appears to be speechless. What brings her story forward—into media headlines, both directly and indirectly—is a Canadian journalist’s intervention in her case.
Sophie’s decision to write about A’isha’s case is well-intentioned. A death-by-stoning is cruel, regardless of the premise of the sentence, but if the sex that occurred (and there is no doubt of that, a child was conceived) was non-consensual, Sophie is determined to draw attention to the situation.
“She felt the night opening up as if it were a peony, many-petalled, and she knew there were other people like her lying awake in their beds, waiting, so the world became large, then larger, then so big she could hardly hold the thought. Who were those other people and what were they thinking as they lay in their beds?”
Sophie believes that she can articulate the crux of the issue: “How will these two systems of law play out over the long term: Nigerian common law and shariah law?” Others who are more familiar with the community issue warnings, but even they underestimate the response.
Soon, Sophie and her partner Felix, are forced to leave the city. The stakes are high but this novel does not read like a thriller; it’s the fact that these are two ordinary young women, whose existence is so acutely threatened, that maintains tension for about 350 pages.