Unspeakable Things

Kathleen Spivack. Knopf, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-35396-0
Magical realism brings hope to Holocaust survivors in poet Spivack’s overly ambitious, occasionally lyrical novel. During World War II, in New York City, former Viennese official Herbert Hofrat unofficially works in the New York Public Library and at an Automat, doing favors for fellow refugees. Herbert’s youngest son, Michael, last seen on a boxcar headed for extermination, haunts his mother, Adeline, bereft in a psychiatric hospital, and brother, David, a decoder for the Americans. David has just discovered that someone in the refugee community is secretly collaborating with the Nazis when a newcomer arrives: Anna, aka the Rat, Herbert’s Hungarian cousin, a dwarf with a humpback and a beautiful face. Herbert and Anna share a fondness for Esperanto and chess, dating back to before Herbert married Adeline and Anna a dissipated Russian count. Also in New York are the Tolstoi String Quartet: the toast of prewar Vienna until their wives, tired of playing second fiddle, left them to Hitler’s henchmen, who cut off the musicians’ pinkies. Coincidentally, the severed digits have also come to New York, into the laboratory of Dr. Felix, a pediatrician during the day, but by night a mad scientist dedicated to cloning a master race. Spivack is at her best describing musical magic. Depicting villains, she exceeds poetic license, losing the credibility that makes magical realism real. Over-the-top images involving Rasputin, a one-legged prostitute, and preserved body parts are meant to capture the allure of ugliness and evil, but instead they suggest the author would have been better served leaving unspeakable things unspoken. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/09/2015
Release date: 01/26/2016
Genre: Fiction
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