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Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack
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's review
Nov 21, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction

Author Kathleen Spivack, in her episodic novel, Unspeakable Things, takes the reader from the dark precipice of the old world during the war-torn 1940s, to the new life which is being created, haltingly and painfully, by the intelligentsia who have escaped to New York. Refugees from Europe, they attempt to continue their lives in New York City. It is a moment in time which is suspended. There is little direction. Memories hold as much import and reality as actions for the family to whom the reader is introduced. There is Herbert, now a grandfather, who is struggling to accept his position as this small community's man with the answers. His wife has gone mad with the loss of their son Michael. Their other son, David, works in Washington as a decoder or cipher. His grandchildren are still young. Only Ilse, David's wife, who works, seems to have adapted to the new way of life they are living in New York.
When the little Countess, Anna (also known as "the Rat", for her ugliness and beauty combined) arrives to live with the family, other forces begin to affect each member. Her powerful presence is a physical as well as intellectual signal for change.
Additionally playing a critical part in this novel is Felix, a Nazi doctor who is a scientist attempting to realize the dream of the master race from specimens he collects and cultures. In fact, he has specimens from the Tolstoi Quartet. They too arrive in New York during the course of Unspeakable Things. Each one of them is missing something essential without which they will be unable to play pieces as they once did in Vienna.

What are the "Unspeakable Things" which are brought to light by this novel? They could be construed as the unspeakable things which the little Countess, Anna, brings up to the child Maria. These concern the physical and sexual brutality she underwent at the hands of Rasputin in order to pay off a debt owed by her husband, a debauched count.The passion and depravity she experienced changed her forever.
Even more however, the unspeakable things concern the horror and brutality brought upon Europe by Hitler and the Nazis.The loss and the darkness which swept away whole civilizations and peoples is portrayed within this novel frighteningly and horrifyingly, yet from one step removed.
The author, with vivid and powerful writing, plunges the reader into this time period in New York. The balance of things is beginning to turn from old to new. However, for many within this tiny cadre of refugees, memories hold them and keep them from taking action as if they are trapped within specimen jars, hopeless in a collection kept barely alive by a mad scientist. Only the little Countess make an ultimate sacrifice.
Finally, from the haunting and horrible depths comes the unquenchable urge for a new Spring, and a new life. To accomplish this, values of beauty and refinement must be left behind, like photographs of strangers, in silver frames. Were they real? What significance did they have? Many things which represent the arts and beauty, and all that we embrace and cleave to in our humanity, are lost during this time of transition.
In the end, Unspeakable Things turns and faces renewal and change. A choice is made. The old is left behind. What unfolds and adapts may be prosaic, however it promises a future for the next generation.
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Reading Progress

November 21, 2015 – Started Reading
November 21, 2015 – Shelved
November 21, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction
November 21, 2015 – Finished Reading

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