Unspeak­able Things

Kath­leen Spivack
  • Review
By – May 24, 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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