Waging an Inner Crusade

Dylan ZhangFebruary 2, 2021SilenceMedia

"I hear the world, but they can’t hear me
Waging an inner crusade when I speak."
- Elise

Silence is like a bubble, protecting you from embarrassing yourself. But silence can also act as a barrier, causing you to be isolated and lonely — this is what the novel After Zero tells me at one point in its story. After Zero was written by the American writer Christina Collins and published in 2018. Collins has written many books, like Objects in Vases and A Room in Dodge City. I believe that After Zero is the best one, for it tells a heartfelt and emotionally powerful story that forces us to think about issues such as socialization, silence, and communication in the growth of our young people. It also explores selective mutism, a condition where a person decides not to speak because of high anxiety levels.

In After Zero, the main character Elise chooses not to talk, because every time she tries to socialize at school, her life keeps getting worse and worse. She used to be homeschooled by her mother, but every day she was very lonely. So Elise persuades her mother to send her to a public school where her only friend goes. However, Elise doesn’t have much experience socializing with other kids of her age. She makes mistakes and embarrasses herself every time she talks to her classmates. Elise means to be silent — or not speak out — for only a very short time, but months pass and it persists. Elise is now not sure she could speak even if she wanted to, for her bubble of silence resists her words. Throughout the novel, Elise lives mostly in her thoughts, literally, and does not speak a word to anyone, not even to her own parents. But the author tells the story from Elise’s perspective and thus allows readers to pass through her silence and go inside of her mind. They are able to know Elise better than her actual parents and friends. They get to read Elise’s thoughts, which no one in the novel can understand. Because of this narrative angle, the novel creates a unique connection and bond between the readers and the silent main character. This insider knowledge and understanding prompts readers to be sympathetic to Elise, feel the unfairness she suffers from other people around her, and keep on reading the story to see what will happen to her.

Silence can be understood differently depending on the scenario and the person viewing it. Some interpretations of silence can be stupidity, shyness, or just moodiness. However, people generally do not realize that silence can also be the result of “selective mutism,” a psychological disorder. In Elise’s case, many people around her might feel she is dumb and stupid; some might feel frustrated at the fact that she will not talk no matter what, thinking perhaps she is too stubborn. What I see, though, does not support any such opinions. I see a young and struggling mind, using all her willpower to resist talking, to fight the unfairness and challenges she faces with her tenacious silence. The author wants readers to think about why she is not talking, and furthermore to explore each and every one of these misunderstandings surrounding Elise. She only reveals close to the end of the book that Elise suffers from “selective mutism.” As a result, the novel succeeds in involving readers in its explorations in the story. You do not feel like you are just watching from the sidelines; you are part of the story emotionally and intellectually.

The good and bad effects of silence are explored extensively in the novel. Throughout the book, we readers observe how Elise tries to speak and break open her bubble, and learn how this bubble can at once protect and inhibit her. We find that every time Elise speaks, she thinks she just hurts the people around her and embarrasses herself. So to avoid such troubles, she doesn’t talk. But, not talking can produce even worse effects — feeling hurt. People around Elise think that she doesn’t care about them, is not friendly, and that in her mind her friends and family do not exist at all. That is exactly what happens between Elise and Mel, the only friend Elise has. Once Elise stops talking to Mel, Mel feels hurt inside and gives up on being Elise’s friend. In the novel, the effects of silence — good or bad — preoccupy the storyline and the characters. Because of them, the novel tends to leave us, readers, with some deeper sense of sadness — silence might have saved Elise temporarily, but in the long run, it causes her to rot from the inside out.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the narration of the novel, with the author slowly building up the story step by step, sometimes using intimate words for description, and focusing the narrative lens largely on Elise and her mental and psychological reactions to her surroundings. With a clear line of beginning-climax-ending for each event occurring to Elise, and with an unhurried pace of unfolding the plot in the novel, readers can always expect what is coming next while reading the book. However, the book ends without much foreshadowing or with too abrupt a twist, thus causing readers to be confused at the sudden speedup. Near the end, the author packs a ton of events into the story — even some major changes — yet without much explanation for their cause. I think the author should have tried to either foreshadow the ending a bit, to ease into the ending at a slower pace, or to just give a bit more context in general. Without them, the current ending may make some readers feel at a loss as the tables are turned too quickly.

I relate to the book in a unique way. Unlike Elise, I am a very talkative person and I would like to talk to my friends and parents about everything. I can hardly imagine what it would be like for me not to talk, to close myself in total silence, to cut off communication with all the people around me. Because of this, I can feel all the more the intensity and unbearable burden of silence and anxiety that Elise locks herself in — what a life she suffers!

To summarize, I believe After Zero expresses its meaning and purpose clearly. I would recommend it to middle schoolers because it examines excellently how silence is good and bad at the same time. It also helps us understand Elise, the selective mutism she suffers, and how she is afraid to hurt others, which causes her to not talk. This book can help many middle schoolers get through tough times when they experience similar troubles in socialization. After Zero is one of the most beautiful and emotional books I have ever read and I believe it can help many people to socialize better and open themselves up a bit more to the world. If I were to give it a rating, I would give it four out of five stars. After Zero may also help others understand and respect the fact why some people stay quiet and why they choose not to socialize.

Dylan Zhang is an 11-year-old boy born in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Now he is a sixth grader at Hong Kong International School. He plays violin and likes to play Ping Pong and badminton.