UNSPEAKABLE by Harriet Shawcross


The Things We Cannot Say
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A British filmmaker and journalist documents the mysteries of selective speechlessness.

In her affecting debut, Shawcross charts the lives and struggles of people for whom interactive communication has become a virtually insurmountable feat. As a homesick exchange student studying English at the University of California, the author discovered the writings of Pulitzer Prize–winning poet George Oppen. She was fascinated by the fact that he abandoned poetry for more than two decades after serving in World War II. The author also reports on childhood selective mutism, following the unique activity and progress at a New York camp for mute teenagers, and she discusses how menstruation has been tabooed to almost mythical proportions in the mountains of far west Nepal. Shawcross chronicles her time at a Buddhist retreat and her visit with a silent order of nuns in central London where peacefulness is golden and ritualistic: “The…sisters have renounced almost all contact with the world….Their lives are dedicated to prayer.” Shawcross refers often to Oppen’s life and poetry, which serves as a kind of anchor to her narrative. She shares an enlightening interview with Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, a project the author participated in. Braided throughout these profiles and stories is Shawcross’ moving personal history. As a child, she’d lost the ability to speak in conversation with others and retreated into her own silent world. This development was spurred by the permanent arrival of her grandmother into the family home and the shame of her father’s sudden unemployment. “I never intended to stop talking….It felt safer, easier somehow, to say the bare minimum,” she writes. Those years of self-imposed pseudo-silence shaped her as a future journalist and a pensive filmmaker but also plagued her romantic relationships with women. Though she slowly found her own voice again in adulthood, the author still admits to experiencing difficulty in saying what she feels even on the brink of marriage, an “alien” but welcome concept to her.

A curious, intensive exploration of the eccentric world of silence and solitude.

Pub Date: May 7th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-78689-004-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Canongate
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2019


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