You know that crawling feeling you get at the back of your neck sometimes, when the tiny hairs hidden there start screaming at you that something is off? I got that in the opening pages of Unspeakable Things, as the main character Cassie innocently describes her dad massaging her older sister’s shoulders over a family game of monopoly. This scene was enough to tell me from the outset that something rotten dwells at the core of this family. *shudder*.
Unspeakable Things tells a thoroughly unsettling story well within the bounds of reality. There are no ghosts, demons, or supernatural forces at play here, but it is incredibly chilling. This is the story of a family suffocating under the crushing weight of the patriarch’s mood swings, poverty, crippling alcoholism, and sex parties.
Yep, you read that right. *shuddering intensifies*
Reading this novel through Cassie’s eyes, you’re given a tweenager’s glimpse into the lives of the adults around her. Her long-suffering but compliant mother, the weirdly intimate town police officer, the creepy dude that lives on Cassie’s street, the beloved Aunt with hero-status, the kind but mysterious school music teacher. Throughout this novel, each flawed adult character shows just enough of their underbelly to be visible to Cassie’s watchful and inquisitive eyes, as she tries to solve the mystery of who is molesting the town’s boys. Each day, she desperately searches for connections with her peers. Each night, she hides in her wardrobe and counts her father’s drunken footfalls up the stairs. She has constructed a superstitious web of rules and rituals to keep herself safe. But ultimately, it’s all in vain as she and her peers are at the mercy of the adults around her.
Cassie’s father is the terrifying character at the centre of everything. His moods are utterly unpredictable. He is at best negligent and at worst a criminal. He rules his family with a sloppy drunken fist and the only thing that brings him joy is holding swinger parties while his children, old beyond their years, act as bartenders.
Having a child is a momentary decision or accident that brings a lifetime of inescapable responsibility. You cannot know what you’re signing up for when you choose to go down that road. You don’t get a day off and you can’t turn a blind eye. Even at the age of 13, Cassie thinks she has the power and responsibility to protect herself, her sister, and her friends. Like many girls, she carries the weight of the world on her diminutive shoulders.
I really felt for Cassie’s character and her plight. With heavy subject matter like this, it can be hard to keep a reader like me willing to engage. I appreciated the sensitivity of how this story was told, which erred on the side of showing/implying rather than telling. Cassie is loveable and spirited, and I wanted to see how it all turned out for her in the end. Though the ending is slightly too abrupt and jarring, it was nevertheless a worthwhile journey.
4 stolen lip balms out of 5.