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The Golden Silence

February 27, 2015

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The title page: so lovely. The book: so racist.

My top three most appallingly racist things about The Golden Silence — another travel adventure from A.M. and C.N. Williamson — not counting that thing where all the Arabs are kind of evil, are as follows:

  1. Liberal use of the n-word, always in reference to someone whose skin is “hardly darker than old ivory.”
  2. Referring to drums used by various North Africans as tom toms.
  3. The obsessive cataloging of everyone’s complexions.

Stephen Knight (“brown as if tanned by the sun”) is engaged to Margot Lorenzi (“slightly sallow,” but makes “artistic use of a white cosmetic”) but it’s complicated — Margot’s dad sued Stephen’s brother, and when the dad lost his case, he killed himself. So Margot is alone in the world, and she’s very pleased to have gotten Stephen to propose, even though they don’t like each other very much. She’s slightly vulgar and wears makeup, which is how you know women in Williamsons books are evil.

Anyway, she goes off to Canada for a bit, which leaves Stephen free to visit his friend Nevill Caird (“the complexion of a girl”) in Algeria. On the way there he meets Victoria Ray(“creamy”), an American girl in search of a sister who married an Arab and then disappeared when Victoria was a child. Also on the boat with them is Sidi Maïeddine ben el Hadj Messaoud — he’s the one who’s skin is hardly darker than old ivory — who seems very taken with Victoria.

You can see where this is going. Victoria ends up traveling into the desert with Maïeddine, who is trying to get her to marry him. Meanwhile, Stephen and Nevill run around trying to find them and Stephen is increasingly tortured by the thought that he has to go home and marry Margot. It’s less rapey than The Sheik, but The Sheik might be more nuanced in terms of behavior.

It’s more of an adventure than you usually get from the Williamsons, and the one proper fight scene is pretty exciting. I was also sort of impressed with the character of Victoria’s sister — after ten years of imprisonment, you’d expect her to be a little fucked up, and she is. I expect the Williamsons aren’t really sure what to do with her, though, because they let her fade into the background as soon as they can. The ending is also pretty abrupt — the Williamsons have a habit of ending books in the middle of a conversation, and I get it, but I don’t like it.

I don’t know what there is to say, really, about a book that made me stop and think, “wow, this is so racist,” at least once a chapter. There were good things — I was really interested in Victoria’s brief career, and the descriptions of Algerian decor were pretty cool, and I was left wanting more of a number of minor characters — but I also sort of wanted to tell the Williamsons to keep to Europe in the future. A lot of books set in Africa and Asia are like this — super effusive about the scenery and the architecture and the history and stuff, but dismissive of or hostile to the people, and it’s super gross and uncomfortable. Alice Williamson is my problematic fave, basically.

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10 comments

  1. Okay, I think this one will be at the bottom of my Williamsons TBR list!


    • Seems reasonable as long as you’ve already read Lord John in New York, because The Golden Silence at least has some stuff going for it.


  2. I read It Happened in Egypt this summer but honestly I don’t remember much about it. It might have been racist?


    • It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t think it was as overtly racist. Which might just be because all the main characters are white and they are, for the most part, hanging out with other white people.


  3. I read this one and didn’t remember it. But I found it on my kindle fully read, so I guess I did! Unlike heidenkind, I did remember ‘It Happened in Egypt’, which stuck with me for quiet a while. I really liked it. There’s the plucky Irish heroine (nee Brigit O’Brien), who is traveling with the ‘Gilded Rose’, a pretty together american heiress. The Rose’s” real name is Rosamond but she goes by Monny.
    The heros are a mixed bag. I loved Duffer It’s nice to read about a normal, imperfect guy. Yeah,he’s the younger brother of an Irish Lord, but he doesn’t lord it over anybody. His buddy Anthony goes incognito as an Arab for most of the book. He was a little harder to love, he lies a lot, and is quite arrogant. And then there’s the heiress’s aunt who thinks she’s the reincarnation of Cleopatra. They’ve got at least three plots going. There’s the american spinster who’s been tricked into marrying a shiek that the group decides to rescue. There’s also a archeological dig part of the story with intrigue out the gazoo. And one of the heros is a spy working with the English to try to control the rebel elements.

    Is it racist sounding to us?, Yes, but if they wrote it any other way it would have not been true to the time. This is the way white people in Egypt thought and spoke back then. If one is offended by that, the only thing to do is not read it. But then you’d miss a really fun, involved story.


    • It Happened in Egypt was the first Williamson book I read, and while obviously there’s a general atmosphere of racism, it’s definitely not as overt as it is in The Golden Silence. It’s the kind of thing that I, personally, note, make a face at, and move on from.

      And look: yes, racist attitudes were more acceptable in the past, but you’re implying that they were necessary, and that’s not true. Any time I object to racism, someone comments saying something about how things were different then. And that’s true. But we’re not reading this then; we’re reading it now. our options here are not read and don’t worry about the racism/don’t read . I don’t stop reading a book because it’s too racist very often, but I can’t dismiss it, either, and I would not want to have the ability to do that. It’s possible to note things that are problematic in a book, be upset about it, and still be able to enjoy other aspects of it.

      I find the idea of being able to dismiss racism like that incredibly disturbing. You’re not living in the 1910s. You should not have the luxury of being able to ignore racism.


      • Did not say or mean to imply that racism was necessary at the time. Just that it existed. It was one of the causes for the problems in the region. I was not dismissing, or shutting my eyes to it. I recognized it and was sad, knowing that if Anthony had really been Egyptian, Monny would not have married him.

        Your previous writings led me to believe that you took a dim view of bashing these books because of racism. My somewhat flip last comment was meant in that spirit, not in the take it or leave it way you interpreted it.


        • Understood, and sorry for jumping on you like that. I am told to ignore stuff like this way too often, so I’m sensitive to it.

          But also:

          a) I think you can bash the racism in a book without bashing the book.
          b) The other thing I worry about when people say, “oh, things were different then,” is that, in a lot of ways, they’re not. Sometimes people identify social issues with the past and ignore the fact that those issues are still present, if not to the same degree. (Not saying you’re doing that, just thinking through this.)


          • You’re totally right about the Williamsons meticulously cataloguing everyone’s skin colour! I didn’t really notice it when I first read Golden Silence, but seeing it highlighted in your post makes the Williamsons seem as colour-obsessed as Pantone.

            If I may wade into the racism debate, as a non-white reader of historical novels like these, I enjoy the irony that these books are now open to the gaze of the exact races who, back when they were written, probably wouldn’t have had either access to the books or the English fluency to understand all the offensive nuances.

            But reading them now is like finding somebody’s diary and discovering all the petty gossip they wrote about you, never intending you to see it. For example, I love HP Lovecraft’s stories even though his inhuman creatures always seem to be yellow-skinned and slanty-eyed, like me. It amuses me that despite his prejudices and best efforts, multiculturalism has succeeded to the point where the people he was referring to are able to not only read his work but even critique it. The yellow peril he feared never really materialized; Asians simply assimilated into American society just like all other immigrants. As written, his work is still offensive to contemporary eyes, but the dramatic irony takes away the sting.


            • That’s a pretty cool way to look at it. I sort of feel similarly about insisting on liking all the villainous Jewish businessmen and moneylenders I find in old books, but you can only reappropriate stuff for a group you’re part of. I don’t think I, as a white person, get to be okay with offensive portrayals of POCs.



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