Everyone has secrets buried deep inside. All people are capable of doing unspeakable things. In Kathleen Spivack’s newest novel, Unspeakable Things, the nature of burying secrets is examined within a family filled with pain, lust, loss, confusion, and malice. Set in the bustling world of 1940s New York, the Hofrat family must do what they can to survive in a time of war. Along with a depraved doctor who dabbles in genetic engineering, whispers of a dead son, a string quartet that can no longer produce beautiful music, and the reappearance of The Rat, the Hofrat family must confront the skeletons in their closets. Will this colorful cast prevail, or be swallowed whole by the sinful deeds of their pasts?
Based off the literary devices and writing techniques of Spivack, Unspeakable Things is a must read. There is such beautiful imagery tightly wound in every passage of this novel. It reads almost as prose at times. Spivack’s poetry-esque style of writing flows gorgeously throughout the story. The characters are intriguing and unique – a strong, grounded cast dipped in surrealism, which makes for a fascinating tale. By all accounts, Spivack is a phenomenal and clever writer when it comes to her craft.
However, while Spivack’s technical attributes as a writer are superb – she can clearly spin a sturdy yarn that hooks her audience – the story itself is a bit, shall we say, bizarre. This is clearly what the author is going for, as there are many surreal, almost supernatural-like elements woven into the story and often the strangeness of the novel plays quite well. However, many interactions between the cast, or even self reflections within just one character, leave the reader feeling weird and uncomfortable. Almost any scene that involves Felix results in the reader feeling tense and nauseous, and not in any good way. Also, not everything discussed or presented in the novel makes sense at times (whatever did happen to Michael?). While this might be Spivack’s intention, it does not entirely pay off in the end.
The book sells itself as a “wild, erotic novel,” and it certainly is that. Those looking for a tame romance need to look elsewhere. There are many scenes of passion throughout the story, most of which are written well, though perhaps in extremely exaggerated detail. There are the generic relationships (a wife and a husband making love), the wildly passionate passages (The Rat’s encounters with a certain Mad Monk from history), and even quite strange moments (the Tolstoi Quartet’s need to share their beds with their instruments, which is strangely sexual). The biggest grievance given is the continual rape and sexual assault of a young girl (Maria) in the novel, and how this plot point is, in the end, never addressed while the villain escapes intact and without being reprimanded. While it could be argued that these cases do happen in real life where bad people avoid punishment, it was upsetting to behold in this text. In such a fanciful, bizarre world where anything feels possible, one would assume a villain would receive his just desserts. A huge disappointment, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Unspeakable Things is a well-written novel through and through, but readers will find this story to be uncomfortable and strange – unspeakably strange.
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