‘Quiet Time’ by Derek B Miller – highly recommended

I’m going to try not to gush in this review. Well not after the first paragraph, anyway, but as this is the first paragraph let me just say: Read ‘Quiet Time’. It’s Derek Miller at his best giving us an engaging, I-need-to-know-what-happens-next story that is often funny and sometimes heartbreaking while still digging into topical big themes about how we live and how we define ourselves. He lets us look at those themes through the eyes of different generations with very different cultural backgrounds AND he does interesting things with the narrative form. If all that isn’t enough, the story is narrated by the wonderfully talented Bahni Turpin. Don’t miss out on this one.

Ok. Gush over. Here’s the review.

One of the things that I admire most about ‘Quiet Time’ is Derek Miller’s ability to write about real people dealing with real-world issues while keeping a light touch and a human focus. The book is filled with humour without trivialising what’s going on. He tells his story through the characters rather than about them. His dialogue sparkles with wit but also gives distinctive voices to the main characters.

The focal point of ‘Quiet Time’ is His focal point is the Livingstone family. They are clearly drawn and seemed fully-formed from the beginning of the story. We get to know them by watching them deal with the consequences of moving to an alien environment.

Robert Livingston is an American, from Marblehead, Mass, who works for the UN on designing and implementing processes to make conflict resolution and peacebuilding more effective. His wife, Mkiwa, is a British woman of Yoruba (Nigerian) descent who works as a Human Rights lawyer. They’ve spent their married lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Their two daughters, Beatrice and Lindia, were born there and attend an International School where most of their friends are also foreigners. They live in a multi-lingual environment and the women in the Livingston family are fluent in English, French and Swahili. Robert is fluent in American and can pick his way through French.

Things change when Robert starts ‘Home Turning’, experiencing a growing hearing to return to the New England of his youth. Switzerland doesn’t feel like home. He feels stifled by Switzerland’s endless stability. His daughters are not Swiss just because they were born there. They both have US passports and he wants them to take up their birthright.

Mkiwa points out that they have a privileged life in Switzerland, that the America of twenty years ago that Robert yearns for doesn’t exist anymore and that their daughters will be moving to an alien culture.

Despite this, the Livingston’s move to Marblehead, a rich, picturesque, small town on the Massachusetts coast

I found this set up particularly compelling because I also lived in Switzerland, on Lac Léman, for eighteen years so I’m very familiar with the environment and culture that the Livingston’s lived in. I returned to my native UK three years ago and, even though I’m living in the same house, in the same town, found that the England I left doesn’t exist anymore.

One of the things that works well in ‘Quiet Time’ is that we get to see Marblehead through different lenses: the Livingston adults, one white male returning home but having no friends and no job, the black and British high-powered lawyer, used to confrontations with international tough guys and now facing up to a belligerent HighSchool Principal, and the two mixed race-daughters with the non-American accents, the youngest of whom, Lindia, is a fiercely competitive fencer and the elder, Beatrice who is homesick and struggling to establish her identity in this new environment.

This allows for a comedy of conflicting expectations and misunderstandings, sets up some stark cultural conflicts and raises questions of identity, family and community.

For example, Beatrice finds that, in Marblehead, the colour of her skin is more important than when she was in an International School that drew students from around the world. She’s not sure how she should define herself. He reflects that she actually is African American as her mother is African and her father is American but accepts that the term means something quiet different in Marblehead and doesn’t fit her well at all.

One of the biggest points of cultural difference comes when Beatrice experiences her first Active Shooter Drill at school, get’s freaked by it and takes down the fake police officer who is aiming his finger at each child and shooting them, Her classmates capture this on their phones and the video goes viral.

This is a powerfully written scene that taps into the heart of the book. I admire how Derek Miller can use a single scene to explore multiple themes while still delivering an engaging read. The drill is a traumatic experience for Beatrice. It brings Mkiwa into play around challenging the effectiveness of the drills. It shows the things the locals take for granted that incomers find incomprehensible. It links to the impact of social media on real-life as Beatrice becomes famous on the Internet but doesn’t recognise or accept the person who appears there.

The ‘Quiet Time’ of the title refers to a new cult Reality TV show that follows a family that has unplugged from all digital devices to get some quiet time but whose every move finds its way on to television and or social media where everyone bath them can see it. This provides a route into understanding the challenges young people face in finding and protecting an authentic identity as they grow up in an always-connected, infinitely recursive world where people’s stories become entangled as they watch people watching them on social media. The effect is amplified as Beatrice’s online persona takes on a reality of its own, intersects with the ‘Quiet Time’ show and finally reaches into real life in Marblehead.

I loved that Beatrice had to explain ‘Quiet Time’ to Mkiwa, who is then amazed at how much information, research and discussion there is around what she’d dismissed as a piece of entertainment. I also loved that Beatrice intuitively rejects the persona that has been built for her on the Internet, seeking privacy and insisting on her own identity and how this leads to her being an even bigger Internet personality.

I was amused by Robert, a very clever man who has spent his life dealing with complex problems and yet struggles with day-to-day practical issues like finding a job and living within his means and who is finally having to accept that re-engineering the whole world may not be viable and that smaller, simpler arrangements need to be thought about.

‘Quiet Time’ isn’t just a showcase for ideas. It’s a story where you want to know what happens to the people you care about. It shows us the growing friendships between the Livingston’s and a prominent local family who, beneath their affluence are living with a family tragedy that has produced so much grief that it has strangled hope. We have a drama a Lindia disappears and we get a resolution where the two families start to work together on making their part of the world better.

There were a number of times when the structure of ‘Quiet Time’ reminded me of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. There are stories within stories. Not just the people on the Internet watching each other live their lives but stories that Beatrice is asked to write to ‘process’ the violence of her Active Shooter Drill experience. Both these stories are fascinating in their own right and are then used to trigger real-world reactions as their meanings and consequences are discussed by the powers that be.

I found ‘Quiet Time’ to be a fun book to read, that also felt real and topical and did interesting things with form. What more could I ask for?

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