Sequel to the wonderful The Salt Path, The Wild Silence is Raynor Winn’s second book. Similarly autobiographical in tone, this book picks up shortly after The Salt Path finishes.
From the opening chapter, we’re thrown straight back into the natural world as we meet Ray again. Her and Moth have started on their new lives in Polruan, but Ray is unsettled and drawn to that coastal path that changed so much. The book starts on that path as New Year’s Day dawns and it’s clear that Ray is struggling.
“In the faint greying lift of light I climbed on to the last rock and sat with my feet hanging over the edge. At the edge of the land and the start of the sea. In a space between worlds, at a time between years, in a life between lives. I’m lost, but here, at least for a moment, I’m found.”
Shortly afterwards, she goes home to Moth, erects the tent indoors and chooses to sleep there. This book is a story of adjustment. Ray is finding it difficult to settle and struggling to adjust to life away from the path. There’s a lot of anxiety about Moth’s illness and the opening chapters contain an uncomfortable sense of foreboding: “unaware that only a few days later I’d find myself in the middle of the country, as far from the sea and the tent I could possibly be.”
The first third of the book sees Ray flailing around for an anchor – in the previous book, one foot in front of the other, every day on that path was what kept her going. Now, she’s static and everything is spinning. She and Moth are avoiding their neighbours, telling half-truths about their circumstances because they’re embarrassed and not allowing anyone else into their lives. Her mum has a stroke and Ray has to make some very difficult decisions about end-of-life care. She makes the decision to keep Moth at a distance from her mother’s deathbed in an attempt to keep her mind away from Moth’s illness.
While she’s watching her mother slowly die, she retreats back to her childhood haunts, which keeps bringing her back to memories of Moth and their early lives filled with adventure and nature. In her darkest moments (and there are many difficult pieces in this first section), her love for Moth and their life together is an anchor that brings the light. Recountings of camping expeditions where they overcame treacherous conditions together feels like a metaphor for their current battle.
The description of her mother’s final moments is breathtaking: “A mist like steam leaving a hot, wet athlete at the end of a long run. Lifting from her body in a gentle rising haze.”
In the second section, Moth articulates his fears about Ray’s mental health. By choosing to include this through Moth’s words, it feels less introspective and less intrusive. We see Ray trying to get more involved with the community and spending a lot of time researching Moth’s condition. Her mind is full of memories of adventures with Moth.
Then comes the clanger – Moth is starting to lose memories of their walk – which is why Ray begins to write their story and bring the path and their journey back to life for him. Nervous about its reception, she gifts it to him for his birthday – and we discover the original title was ‘Lightly Salted Blackberries.’
The rest of this section is slightly surreal as she tries to grasp that their story has become a thing bigger than she can control. There’s a real humility about Ray and her achievement – and it’s fascinating to see how her first glimpse of the story in print is when a Big Issue seller has a back issue with her piece – not a short piece at the back as she’d expected, but a 4 page spread. Despite her achievement, she’s upset that it’s “the day when we watched Moth’s lights fading across the computer screen.”
It’s this humility and her ability to inspire and draw inspiration from others that makes her such a compelling storyteller. On the night she reads her publication, she and Moth encounter a group of young people on a Welsh mountain mourning the death of the lead singer of Linkin Park which prompts her to consider:
“All we are is an electrical charge, no more than a mass of particles, matter, antimatter, mass and energy.”
While The Salt Path was a story about endurance and finding strength in others, this book is about remembering what is important – through the most exciting period of her life (in terms of writing), Ray’s attention is focussed on her loved ones – nothing else matters. It is exciting to be on the journey with her, but she keeps us all firmly on the ground.
She meets people inspired to walk the path because of her article, which gives her the courage to be honest with her neighbours about the reason for them being in Polruan and, thanks to their prompting, to look for a literary agent. “Sometimes you just need someone else to switch the light on in your dark place.”
The second section ends with her friend Sarah telling her ‘ just jump’ into it, prompting the memory that opens the third section of Ray as a young girl afraid to jump into hay in a barn.
She makes the leap – and starts the promotion tour. Moth has passed his degree and things are finally beginning to work for both of them – although the spectre of Moth’s illness hangs heavy. The book brings a connection of a man who wants them to rewild his farm. They don’t want to get their hopes up but “we held hands, put our trust in the path and jumped.”
Their new home is an idyll, filled with creatures – but they’re worried their landlord will force them to leave and there’s a lot of anxiety when he comes to visit. Unsurprisingly, their fears are unfounded – Moth has done a wonderful job and is beginning to gain strength.
Like in The Salt Path, Ray brings her story to life with description and also avoids it becoming wholly bucolic by humour about the trials and tribulations of rewilding process. Inspiration and hope comes in the form of animal guests – there’s a particularly moving passage involving an osprey in this section.
Part Four sees them on the road again – this time in Iceland where they’ve arranged to hike with other couple from their Coastal Path Walk. Conditions are tough – intimidating weather and disappointingly dismissive younger hikes. Ray is under no illusions about the effects of age on the body and talks about the loss of confidence in their bodies, especially as they face a run down scree. Despite it all, they continue – even when Moth loses teeth in a frozen Mars Bar.
There’s a real delicacy in the heartbreaking love story of the two girls and the boy that run alongside Moth, Ray and their friends – the simplicity of their love for one another and the drama and trauma of fledgling relationships. There are small signs of Moth’s recovery – unwrapping cereal bars unaided, wading across rivers on his own. There’s so much hope here: “yet all around I could see it: more new life. Roots somehow finding a purchase in the loose, inhospitable earth.”
The book draws to a close with an aurora sighting and again Ray draws wisdom from the earth “whatever was lost or found in life he would always be a part of this. A part of the charged movement of molecules from the earth to the universe. He would never leave.” She is trying to come to terms with the fact she may lose him.
The last chapter sees the book end as it began – on the path. We’re back near the barn, but this time, they’re not alone – all their friends have come from Polruan to help salvage the apple harvest. Ray isn’t as clichéd as to end on a metaphor – but this is a fitting end to their journey – help will be always be there if you ask for it and let people onto your journey with you.