Unspeakable Things. Kathleen Spivack.

Spivack, Kathleen. Unspeakable Things. Knopf, New York, 2016. F;10/22.

A Paris Review (Fall 2022) contained a page of prose-poetry by this author that sent me looking for more and this novel looked like what I wanted. Spivack is 84 and daughter of Peter Drucker the management guru, and she’s written several novels and lots of poetry. This was for me a strangely uncontrolled story about Jews escaping the Nazis in World War II and settling in New York, and it heavily relied on magic that frustrated suspension of disbelief pretty fatally for me.

Three characters, one a family, predominate. The senior man in the family was wealthy and influential in Vienna and now is somehow helping Europeans manage in the new world. A childhood friend of his appears. She is – well – pretty weird: a tiny Russian noblewoman with a spinal deformity who goes by the name of The Rat but who is somehow romantically irresistible and so has had an affair with Grigori Rasputin. His life-changing effect on her definitely lines up with his reputation. Then we have a Nazi pediatrician who has stored away little jars and bottles containing bits of skin and other body parts of all sorts of famous and talented people. This guy probably sexually abuses his young patients and their mothers, and his scientific preoccupation of successfully re-creating special people and reattaching body parts from preserved specimens is part of the unlikely magic we are expected to accept.

There are brief flashes of poetic brilliance and gripping scenes, especially sex, that had me hoping for something to carry consistent imaginary interest. But time and again these impressive moments were followed by wandering irrelevant unconvincing character behaviour and plot direction that left me thinking about all the Jews-escaping-Nazis-and-making-it-in-New-York stories which this was adding to. The originality seemed confined to the bizarre peculiarities of the leading characters.

Overall the wandering plot and the strange never-quite-credible characters robbed me of any persisting joy working through all these Unspeakable Things. You could call the book Unbelievable Things. And there are a bit more unspeakable things around these days than a deformed lady having monstrous sex with a famous lothario and a bad pediatrician abusing his patients.

Numerical scores don’t work here. I’d say the plot and characters were verging on silly and the writing was just inconsistent. Not worth the trouble.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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