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.

“Though the room was at the back of Felix’s mother’s house, Sophie had woken to the sound of the imam chanting before dawn at the mosque across the road, and woken an hour later to the garbage truck, a loud, singsong melody playing each time it paused, and then a boy started filling pails of water at a tap outside, all the while carrying on a conversation with someone at an upstairs window. The tap squeaked like a tortured animal as it was turned on and off.”

The premise of the story is striking. The tension is engaging. But what pulled my heart into this story were the innocuous details. In another writer’s hands, a single aspect of the story might overwhelm—the polemical, the moralizing, the earnestness—but Simpson wraps tendrils around seemingly unimportant minutiae. Someone tries to kiss someone else’s cheek, but ends up kissing their ear instead. Someone who is fleeing for safety notices a man in a car up ahead, picking his nose.

Such details are not random (the first demonstrates how often someone’s good intentions are misplaced, the second hints at the idea that how one behaves when they believe themselves to be unobserved is different than they behave otherwise). They also aren’t earth-shattering (the plot unfolds independently of these instances). Rooting life-and-death matters to ordinary and forgettable moments engages readers’ attention at another level, building credibility and insisting on imperfection.

In this narrative, A’isha does have the opportunity to speak, directly to Sophie and to readers. It is, unquestionably, a story that’s worth hearing. That’s not the question Anne Simpson intends to provoke. More pressing is the question of who should tell someone else’s story. Egregiously important is the matter of how one takes responsibility for errors in judgement.