cover image Things Unspoken

Things Unspoken

Chronicle Books, Anitra Peebles Sheen, Anita Sheen. Chronicle Books, $22.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-2355-5

Sheen makes a strong debut with this moving, partly autobiographical, bittersweet coming-of-age story set in 50s Los Angeles. When four-year-old Jorie Mackinnons mother dies of polio, she faces an uncertain universe of two older brothers and a detached, impatient physician father. Her father imposes little order, and she and her brothers, though inadequately supervised by an endless series of housekeepers and babysitterssome mean, some inadequate, one an alcoholiclive an untamed life. Insecure about her lone-female status in a family of males, and terrified of losing the love of her remaining parent (emotionally absent as he may be), she learns at an early age the necessity of keeping stoically silent on certain subjects. As she approaches adolescence, however, she realizes that her father is harboring his own secrets. On a rare family trip to Canada, where Dr. MacKinnon was born, she discovers the reason he has been estranged from his own father for many years. Despite brief periods of a seemingly normal domestic environment, she becomes aware that he has another life involving associations with gangsters, parties with Errol Flynn, a first wife in China and liaisons elsewhere, and other dark secrets that threaten the familys already fragile foundation. Relating the narrative from the perspective of an adult Jorie, Sheen achieves the effect of intelligent observation without the threat of preciosity. The novel acquires a quiet, pervasive poignance as it dawns on Jorie that her family is not like other families, that her life is not the stuff of Father Knows Best, and that the absence of a mother can leave a daughter dangerously unmoored. Jories heartbreaking efforts to please a father who refuses to speak of love are affecting and her generous forgiveness of his self-absorption, neglect and fatal addiction provides for a tender, thoughtful ending that is both believably and mercifully uplifting. (June)