An improvised roadside device (IED) pierces the world of four American soldiers traveling in a Humvee in an Iraqi village shortly after 9/11, and instantly obliterates three of them. The fourth, driver Nick Colonna from Old Orchard Beach, is blown into a world devoid of sound.

He returns home, declared a war hero, unable to hear his cheering neighbors and the blare of the high school band. The only thing he can hear are the voices of his dead comrades – Moby, Dupuy and Ramos, whose incessant palter in his head make the war near never-ending. Colonna never leaves the house without his Ka-Bar knife strapped to his leg to defend himself against imagined threats.

Thus opens “Silence,” by Maine writer William Carpenter. The early chapters, focused on Colonna’s attempts to adjust, have a fierce, haunting intensity. Nick’s father works as a stone cutter of memorial headstones, still earning minimum wage after “inhaling granite dust along with the atmosphere of death” for three decades; his mother is out of work. Colonna sits with them in silence as they know he cannot hear a word they say. His girlfriend, whom he’d expected to marry, visits, sitting awkwardly beside him on the couch for a painfully brief time before leaving.

“Once you leave the place where you started, there’s no turning back,” Colonna comes to realize. “The person arriving home isn’t the one who had left.”

Carpenter is gifted in depicting an out-of-kilter world torn loose from sound. Near the breakwater and the fish houses, “the sound of seagulls once screamed their beaks off but have now gone silent in honor of those who have served.” “Memories of sounds surround each visible object like a pulsing shimmer in the air.” “It is quieter than death within the fogbank …”

Colonna likes to read writers like Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, who had seen combat and “knew how to bring the sights and sounds of it to the silent page.” To Colonna, it seems their “explosions of words … you could feel them like ordnance in your spine.”


Out bike-riding one afternoon, Colonna is attacked by a large German shepherd. As the dog prepares to snap his arm, he frees his Ka-Bar and drives it into the animal’s spine. It brings his VA contact and the police to his house, the cop telling him that locals aren’t keen on animal cruelty. His parents negotiate with the authorities, and work out a resolution, but Colonna fears they’ll be back in the morning to lock him up in the VA hospital.

To prevent that, he rises the next morning before dawn, loads his gear into his army duffle, heads to the marina, unties his recently purchased dory and rows across the ship channel to the uninhabited Amber Island. The place holds memories of his last nights camping with his girlfriend before shipping out as well as of boyhood trips, when he often accompanied his grandfather to a quarry on the island to cut stone. Colonna intends to take up permanent residence in an old shepherd’s cottage there as “a refugee from injustice.”

Carpenter keeps the reader guessing, revealing the full arc of the story piecemeal. The island belongs to a Boston family, purchased years back by the patriarch, world-renowned architect Marston Fletcher. It was his sanctuary, a refuge from the endless pressure of designing structures all over the world. The elder Fletcher has recently died, and left the island in the hands of his wife, son, daughter and son-in-law, and another daughter Julia, who is finishing her college thesis, a photo essay on the island. Julia is especially drawn to capturing scenes in black and white that depict silence. She shares her father’s love of Amber Island’s isolation and peace; as a child, she often accompanied him on his retreats.

To Julia’s horror, her sister and brother-in-law have convinced her mother to build a home on the island, which her late husband had designed years before but never built. The family wants to erect a monument to his creative genius, and use the home as the center of an exclusive resort. Colonna has been granted permission to stay on  as its caretaker.

Colonna encounters Julia when she barges into the old shepherd’s cottage. He sticks a rifle in her face, believing she is the harbinger of the death he escaped in Iraq. This signals a significant turn in the story that may be a precursor for a storyline leading out of the darkness.

But the author — therefore the reader — is by no means done with surprises.

Carpenter is an award-winning poet and novelist. He also helped found the College of the Atlantic, where he taught for 48 years. He has said that a course he liked to teach, the Aesthetics of Violence, led in part to this novel, his third.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound” and was  a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website:

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