Review of Elana Gomel, “The Prison-house of Language”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.
Dr. Sophia Abdoul is unique, as a linguist who finds human language painful to speak. That condition has driven her to study as many languages as she can, both modern and ancient, in a search for the mythical ur-language that pre-dated them all. This makes her the perfect person for the army to ask to help with an experiment that has gone awry – the subjects have begun speaking in tongues.
Sophia is a wonderful example of a protagonist who is not traditionally “likable,” but who is still sympathetic and enjoyable to read about. Because of her unique condition, she has trouble connecting with people, who all seem to constantly want to talk. She is acerbic and utterly certain that she is smarter than everyone around her. She’s also perceptive and witty and a wonderful narrator, reflecting both on what is happening around her in the present, and some traumatic experiences from her past.
At its heart, I believe this is a story about language and how it both divides and connects us. It connects us to each other, but divides us from the rest of the world. It divides Sophia from the rest of humanity in much the same way. The mysterious experiment that she is drawn in to help repair and explain takes it a step further, showing her exactly why she is the way she is, and what she can do that others can not. It’s a good ending, that doesn’t wrap things up too neatly.