"The Things We Cannot Say" by Kelly Rimmer
I wonder, when I'm older and my kids — now 9 and 2 — have grown, how honest I'll be with them about the parts of my past that predate them.
In truth, my past has never been very checkered, my experiences never very dark. But, the more I age and experience the world, the more it seems to me that keeping secrets from your children — or presenting a truth that is perhaps...rosier... than reality — is the norm.
I grew up the daughter of a confident, contented single mother. Having never met my father, and growing up in an affluent suburb in the early 90s where this arrangement was rare to say the least, I logically inquired as to why I didn't have a dad.
And my mom told me how she had fallen in love in college and gotten married, only to learn when she was in her early 30s that her then husband no longer aspired to have the family they had agreed to build.
So, newly single with her biological clock ticking — in an era that was light in fertility-extending technology — she made an agreement with a friend. A man who was willing to help her fulfill her dream of becoming a mom and then walk away, leaving her with what she had always wanted, a child.
And maybe I'm naive, but I didn't question this narrative. It seems possible. Probable, even, given my mom's strength and determination.
So, when I became an adult, I never really felt the need to broach the subject again.
But then, bits of the truth started spilling out here and there.
In conducting an oral history for college, I discovered that my existence, while not unwelcome, was almost certainly unplanned.
And then, some years later, as I sat beside my mother’s hospital bed and kept her company while she recovered from a surgery, I learn even more truths. With a passing comment about a 23andMe commercial that flashed across the TV screen, she (unintentionally?) reveals that my father was likely not the kind of man my mother would have deliberately had a child with.
Perhaps because my own mother obfuscated the truth regarding something as important as where I fucking came from, it was easy for me to understand why the elder of the dual protagonists in The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer waited an exceedingly long time — almost until it was too late — to share the truth of her younger years with anyone.
In this powerful work of historical fiction, Rimmer tells unexpectedly parallel tales.
The first of these tales is set in the early 1940s in Poland and focuses on a young adult, Alina, who is taking her first steps into womanhood against the backdrop of the growing unrest of the Holocaust.
At her tender, formative stage of life, Alina Dziak should be free to focus on building a life for herself — a family independent of the one she grew up in on a farm in rural Poland.
But fate has other plans.
Shortly after the man to whom she’s engaged, Tomasz, leaves their shared hometown to study medicine, the distant rumblings of turmoil the family had heard about in Germany grow into a full-fledged world war. And with Hitler’s army rapidly advancing, it isn’t long before Alina and her family find themselves face-to-face with the conflict.
This development forces Alina to shift her focus from planning for a quiet, happy life with Tomasz to simply hoping that they — and their love — can survive the conflict.
The other half of this novel is set in the present day and stars Alice, a 30-something stay-at-home mother who is dealing with the realities of a life different from the one she planned for herself.
Alice Michaels has always known that her babcia — or grandmother — Hanna, experienced some horrible things back in Poland during World War II. But, with Hanna consistently resistant towards discussing her past, Alice has never known many specifics.
Alice has enough to deal with, after all, trying to take care of her gifted 10-year-old daughter Callie and, even more difficult, provide the accommodations her 6-year-old son Eddie — who is severely autistic — requires in order to live in a world that simply wasn’t built for him.
The life that Alice is fighting so hard to keep from unraveling threatens to do just that when, shortly after experiencing a severe stroke, and with recovery looking exceedingly unlikely, Babcia begs Alice to do her an important, but difficult, favor.
Alice wants to support her babcia. She will do anything to make her last days on Earth happy. But, because babcia’s ability to effectively communicate has been limited by the stroke, she struggles to find out what it is Babcia wants of her.
With two moving tales centering around two exceptionally powerful women woven together to create one cohesive narrative, the novel is utterly breathtaking.
I went into the novel intrigued, but relatively blind.
And I think that made all the difference.
Free of preconceived notions, I let the narrative unfold before me, sweeping me with tsunami strength into the worlds of these women and leaving me breathless as I struggled to keep my grief and heartache at bay.
Rimmer is certainly not the originator of the dual-plot-lines narrative structure — particularly in contemporary literature, it’s exceedingly common. But she is a master of it.
So much of what transformed this book from simply a common, albeit important, historical fiction novel into a moving modern… masterpiece, really — Fuck, that’s a powerful statement, but it’s true — has to do with the structure.
This structure allowed Rimmer to build parallels. To create a piece of fiction that acted almost as a commentary on the human condition. It forced readers to really put themselves in the shoes of those living under or around Nazi rule during WWII.
Another way in which Rimmer literally forced readers to not just empathize with, but truly embody, her protagonists was through the effective use of pacing.
She took her time exploring the past, starting before the war even began and letting us, as readers, see the buildup.
The decision to approach the narrative this way, whether done deliberately or not, completely eliminated the ability for us as readers to sit back and say, "Oh, I wouldn't have let that happen to me. I would have seen the signs. I would have gotten out."
It made it clear that, in a similar situation, faced with similar limitations, anyone could find themselves in the unfortunate position Alina and her loved-ones experienced.
As I read the novel, thinking critically about its strengths and weaknesses, I thought I spotted something that I would classify as one of the latter.
As a result of the previously mentioned narrative structure in which we, the reader, were jumping back and forth in time, we often know decidedly more about Babcia’s past than Alice does. So, at points, as Alice is ham-fistedly grasping for clues, we already know the answers to the questions with which she struggles.
For a moment, this felt frustrating and clunky to me.
But then, when I looked at it through a different lens, it felt brilliant.
By telling her story as she did, our author put us in Babcia’s shoes.
Babcia experiences indescribable frustration as she desperately tries to communicate what’s essentially her dying wish but struggles to do so as a result of the residual impacts of her stroke.
In real life, we as readers feel frustration because we, too, know some things that could be exceptionally useful to Alice but, like Babcia — and even like Eddie — we lack the ability to communicate the information.
This is one of those rare instances in which I don’t have any entries into the negative column — And ya’ll know I wouldn’t hold back if I did.
The Things We Cannot Say is absolutely a triumph.
A sweeping epic that imparts lessons about the indelible scars our experiences leave and the triumph of the human spirit, it is an absolute must read.
It earns a strong and definitive 5 out of 5 cocktails.
Another powerful historical fiction read for me. Man, I’m warming up to this genre. Help me build my historical fiction TBR. Tell me about your favorite historical fiction novel in the comments, below.
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