Kathleen Spivack, an acclaimed poet and author of “With Robert Lowell and His Circle,” has now turned her hand to fiction. Her spry and inventive debut novel, “Unspeakable Things,” follows the shattered lives of refugees who have fled war-ravaged Europe for New York in the 1940s. What begins as a grounded and somewhat familiar account of persecution, alienation and acclimatization quickly warps into a surreal, off-kilter and entirely original tale about survival in exile threatened by madness and grief.
In the first pages, two cousins who have spent years apart are finally reunited. Herbert, a former Austrian civil servant, is now a bigwig in New York’s émigré community, a well-connected fixer who can provide jobs, money and false papers to newly arrived lost souls. Anna, a tiny, hunchbacked Hungarian countess known as the Rat, moves into his cramped apartment and befriends his family, in particular his 8-year-old granddaughter, Maria.
So far so realistic. But then Spivack throws a switch and douses her drama in a magical, otherworldly glow. We meet “Uncle” Felix, a German pediatrician, who loses his avuncular charm after taking us into his secret laboratory and revealing the macabre contents of his specimen jars and expounding his belief in a master race. We learn how the Tolstoi Quartet fell afoul of the Nazi authorities in Vienna for playing the right music but having the wrong politics, and their subsequent perilous escape across the Atlantic to supposed safety. Meanwhile, Anna tells Maria of the “unspeakable things” she was made to do in Russia by Rasputin, the czar’s mystic monk.
Spivack leavens the strangeness with more sober elements, such as Herbert’s wife’s decline in a psychiatric hospital, and the disappearance of their younger son.
But the novel is more cohesive and more compelling when oddities abound. Not only is Anna cursed with a “hyphenated body,” her thighs have been branded by Rasputin’s “sulfurous handprints.”
If she emerges as the book’s most sympathetic character, then Felix is the sinister villain we hope will meet his downfall — but not before his creator has furnished us with some answers. Why is he drugging Maria? Why is he stealing Herbert’s letters? And what does he want with the severed pinkies of each member of the Tolstoi Quartet?
Spivack routinely transports the reader, to interwar Vienna, pre-Revolution St. Petersburg or that “City of Dreams” and “City of Dreams Left Behind,” New York. A plot of sorts develops involving Felix’s dastardly deeds and Herbert’s other son, David, but it proves flimsy, practically dispensable. Instead we allow ourselves to be carried along by the characters’ madcap acts and desperate predicaments.
At the time of the events in the novel, real “unspeakable things” were being perpetrated in Europe. Spivack ensures throughout that those things remain unspoken. However, what her impressive debut skillfully and resonantly declares is that a haven offers no protection from new dangers and old demons.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Kathleen Spivack.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 287 pages, $25.95.
COMING SUNDAY: A review of “The Madwoman Upstairs,” by Catherine Lowell.