UNSPEAKABLE THINGS by Kathleen Spivack


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In poet/memoirist Spivack’s first novel (With Robert Lowell and His Circle, 2012, etc.), magic realism is used to explore the plight of post–World War II Jewish refugees in Manhattan.

At the New York Public Library, Herbert, a former Austrian official, finds a small bundle that contains the tiny, deformed body of his second cousin Anna. Called Rat for the white whiskers that frame her mouth, she has been mysteriously delivered from Leningrad. Rat is not the only person seeking Herbert’s help in the New World. The Tolstoi Quartet wants him to recover the four pinky fingers they had to surrender in order to leave Vienna with their lives. Somehow they know the pinkies are “waiting to be rejoined with their owners,” an only slightly implausible leap of faith for men who once shared beds with their animate instruments while their wives slept on the floor. Readers already know the fingers are in the possession of Dr. Felix, a Nazi posing as a pediatrician to New York’s refugee community. Even more bizarre than the idea that anyone would let Felix near their children, given the creepy way he behaves before ushering out the parents and molesting the kids, is the collection of body parts dispatched to him by the Nazis that he keeps in jars against the day when he can make them “live again.” Obviously none of this is meant to be realistic, and some point about survival and renewal seems to be intended. But it's lost in a text that has some truly vulgar scenes—Anna’s pre-Revolution interlude with Rasputin is soft-core pornographic—and an overall maddening vagueness. Images of Herbert’s son Michael appear over and over to make the point that his loss has fractured the family, but it’s never explained why delivering him to the death-camp boxcars would enable his equally Jewish father, mother, and brother to go free. A final scene of renewal in suburban America is, regrettably, unearned.

Well written but ill-conceived.

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-385-35396-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2015


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