Unspeakable Things

Knopf  2016


In the midst of World War II, Herbert and his wife, Adeline, and their family move to the United States to escape the war and pursue the American Dream. Living in a small apartment in New York, each family member feels not only cramped at home but also confined in their respective public lives. Adeline is suffering from a mental disorder and is temporarily living in an asylum while David, Herbert’s son and Ilse’s husband, travels to Washington to read undercover documents relating to the war and his infrequent visits home leave an absence in the lives of his children, who, despite all the other adults around, aren’t cared for enough. Maria, Herbert’s granddaughter, is brought to the family doctor, Felix, a sadistic pedophile who ruins Maria’s childhood and sense of self. Through the character of Maria, Spivack shows the vulnerability not only of children but of recent immigrants. Felix, on the other hand, has a mission to not allow genius and beauty to leave the world, even if it means cutting away body parts to preserve in his laboratory, secrets that end up conflicting with his personal desires.

When Anna, who due to physical deformities and certain animal-like characteristics is referred to as “The Rat,” arrives in the United States to live with Herbert and his family, she reveals to Maria during late-night whispered conversations about her forced sexual experiences with the Russian Tsar Rasputin, which allows Maria to feel some sense of relief at knowing that she is not the only one who has endured unspeakable things.

Weaved between the narratives of Herbert’s family members is the story of the Tolstoi String Quartet, a Viennese group so engrossed in their love for music that they treat their instruments like lovers and their wives like pets. When their wives begin to protest their treatment, the Quartet begins to fall apart and is in need of specific services from Herbert’s family in America, who might be able to help them play great music again. The novel begins to fall into magical realism through the characters of the Quartet who require a certain kind of magic and belief to be successful, particularly in a time of war.

Each chapter of the novel provides a glimpse into a certain character’s relationship or experience so that each chapter feels like the reader is sitting in a room with these characters as their stories of distress or sexual awakening or family drama unfold. The somewhat short chapters often switch their focus on different characters, making the novel a page-turner. Later in the novel, it is revealed that some of the characters who did not seem to be connected to each other in the beginning are actually connected in very important ways, and due to many secrets, people turn out to be somewhat worse than originally imagined.

An unusual novel, Unspeakable Things is a pleasure to read and the music of Spivack’s prose lifts off the page.

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