The Other Side of Silence

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Based on historical fact, The Other Side of Silence recounts how the German government transported poor and desperate women to its colony in South-West Africa. There they attended to the needs of the predominantly male population as wives or unwilling sex partners. When the women arrived, the male settlers married the desirable ones to serve as helpmates and, ideally, to produce a new generation of Germans in Africa. The rejected ones ended up in a remote settlement called “Frauenstein,” which actually existed into the twentieth century.

The fictitious central character, Hanna X, evolves into a kind of “everywoman.” Through careless record keeping, she even lost her last name. Hanna grew up in a German orphanage, where she experienced privation, beatings, and sexual molestation by a minister. Placed in domestic service at an early age, she confronted a series of cruel mistresses and sex-hungry masters. An ugly and difficult girl, yet intelligent, she finds rare comfort and friendship from a teacher who introduces her to literature and history, including the story of Joan of Arc.

As a young woman, Hanna volunteers to go to Africa. Shortly after she arrives an army officer attempts to rape her. She resists and undergoes a severe whipping and knifing, which leaves her tongueless and physically disfigured. Banished to Frauenstein, she eventually rebels and, like Joan of Arc, forms her own ragtag army consisting of abused women and African natives. Much of the narrative recounts their symbolic trek across the desert as they set out to destroy the German Reich that ruled the colony so mercilessly.

Forceful in its breathless prose and violent in its exposition, the novel serves not only as a powerful indictment of colonialism but as a testament to the mistreatment of women.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 18 (May 15, 2003): 1637.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 8 (April 15, 2003): 550.

Library Journal 128, no. 4 (March 1, 2003): 116-117.

The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003, p. 6.

The New Yorker 79, no. 14 (June 2, 2003): 94.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 14 (April 7, 2003): 42.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 13, 2002, p. 23.