My first review! And if you know me, you’re as surprised as I am, because this isn’t a fantasy novel. Yet, here we go:
It took me a bit to read this. Not because it was boring, but most of my readings into Nazis and the Holocaust were when I was younger. I had a bit of an obsession with reading about this topic. It was safer to read them then. It seemed like such a faraway experience that it couldn’t touch my life. Which is silly to say, because I am German/Dutch and have family that relocated partly due to effects of the war. I currently live in a Michigan community heavily known for its Polish roots. Seriously, you can’t wag a stick without hitting a person whose family emigrated from Poland within the last few generations. But when you’re a child, nothing truly worries you to the bone. Through an adolescent’s eyes, it was a horrible experience that happened, but surely that was because people in the past were cruel and stupid. Surely, we had evolved as humans. When you start to worry and feel anxious over the past (or future), that’s when you know you’re losing your childlike innocence. At the time, it was heartwarming to think that though humanity goes through horrors, but we would always come together to defeat them. Now, these horrors are too close for comfort. What had seemed like “ages ago” as a child, is just a few short years as an adult. In the modern age, children are confined and taken from their parents. It is something that we see in the news daily. We have seen countries gassed. We see war and genocide. You can’t hide from the cruelties of humanity in the age of the internet. So, I’m not ashamed to say that I didn’t devour this book. Simply because I am more aware of the horror inflicted during the reign of Nazi Germany. I am aware of countless parents watching their children die or suffer from unwarranted hate and cruelties that nobody should ever know. Once you become a parent, everything is more terrifying. To say that it is a heavy subject is an extreme understatement… but it is an important one. And maybe the child in me DOES still hope that we will still come together to defeat the hate in the world, and that’s why I still turn to books like this. Don’t let me scare you! I had built up in my mind how hard this book was going to be to read, when it was actually quite gentle in its storytelling.
The Things We Cannot Say offers us two narratives. Alina, a Polish girl whose family owns a farm during the invasion of Poland. Alice, a present day woman dealing with her Babcia’s decline and the daily stresses of mothering a child on the Autism Spectrum (specifically: echolalia). Alice is very close with her Babcia, and her nonverbal son, Eddie, is as well. She’s navigating through life while trying to minimize the amount of things that trigger a panic in Eddie. She lets him eat the few things he will without a meltdown, Go-Gurt and Campbell’s soup. Which, is fine and dandy until the inevitable happens: labels change, products change, and life is disrupted. Needless to say, the impending death of a family member is something that goes from heartbreaking to downright catastrophic to Eddie’s life. Alice’s grief and terror over the outcome is crippling. But, as a mother always does, she fights on. She’s become a shell of who she was, as motherhood can do. Her days are dedicated to her family. She left her job long ago, and life is monotonous, yet stressful. Until… Babcia asks her to visit Poland. In the end of her days, Babcia becomes unable to communicate, except through an app that Eddie has learned to use on his tablet which helps you select pictures of things to turn into words that you’re looking for. She is able to write a few names and locations in Poland and is insistent that Alice goes immediately to find some information out for her before she dies. Alice internally fights with herself on leaving, as she is the one who has maintained a carefully outlined schedule and lifestyle for her son. Her husband is a good man, but he is more apt to let Alice deal with Eddie, as they disagree on approaches to parenting him. She likes structure, he’s likes to push the Eddie past the limitations that Alice has set for him. But he encourages her to take the trip for Babcia and leave the children in his hands. He reminds her that there’s more to life than JUST mothering. A person must live for themselves, as well as their children. Plus, how do you deny a dying woman her final wish? She takes the trip, which leads us unto a journey to find where Babcia’s family ended up after she fled Poland.
With Alina, we follow the journey from girl into womanhood. It starts when her and her betrothed are separated as he leaves to study medicine. Shortly after, the invasion of Poland goes into effect. Alina is the sole child permitted to stay and work her family’s farm while the rest are sent to “work camps” to feed the army. Eventually, she is reunited with her fiancé, Tomasz. He has been aiding Jewish refugees while hiding after refusing to help the Nazi army. Alina and Tomasz’s story is one of pure love and bravery.
I won’t go into too much more, because I don’t want to spoil the story. Alina and Alice’s histories are intertwined. It’s only until Alice goes to Poland that she finds out how. Her grandma has kept the secrets of many people her entire life in America, because it would have cost more lives if she didn’t.
If I were to rate this book, I would give it a 3.5 out of 5 stars. There are many books about the holocaust, but this added some unique elements. First, despite the fact that I started the book with trepidation for what was to come, it manages to tell the story without getting graphic. In fact, it was almost too composed. The story didn’t make me fear for the characters lives as much as it should have, given the setting. I believe that when it came to Alina’s story, the ending was rushed. There was a mystery wrapped in her story that, and even though several of the storylines pertaining to her were predictable to me, it could have still felt thrilling if it was done more masterfully. That bit felt a little too tidy, with not enough emotion to make it quite as unforgettable of a story as it could be. The story was slow-paced the first three-quarters, and then smashed all the excitement and answers to a few chapters. Some of the relationships fell flat when this book has all of the elements of a story capable of building heartfelt and unforgettable relationships. Overall, the premise of the story is a wonderful idea, and the writing was enjoyable but not groundbreaking. If you’re interested in historical fiction, general fiction, and a bit of romance, you’ll probably enjoy this book. It combines those elements with family dynamics, the duality of personal independence to impassioned parenting, and the lengths that one is willing to go to save the ones they love from a harsh world.