The Things We Cannot Say…
About the Book:
Life changed beyond recognition for Alice when her son, Eddie, was born with autism spectrum disorder. She must do everything to support him, but at what cost to her family? When her cherished grandmother is hospitalised, a hidden box of mementoes reveals a tattered photo of a young man, a tiny leather shoe and a letter. Her grandmother begs Alice to return to Poland to see what became of those she held dearest.
Alina and Tomasz are childhood sweethearts. The night before he leaves for college, Tomasz proposes marriage. But when their village falls to the Nazis, Alina doesn’t know if Tomasz is alive or dead.
In Poland, separated from her family, Alice begins to uncover the story her grandmother is so desperate to tell, and discovers a love that bloomed in the winter of 1942. As a painful family history comes to light, will the struggles of the past and present finally reach a heartbreaking resolution?
Inspired by the author’s own family history, The Things We Cannot Say unearths a tragic love story and a family secret whose far-reaching effects will alter lives forever.
There are two very powerful stories threaded together within this novel. Kelly Rimmer is well established as a contemporary author of merit, tackling topical issues within the domestic sphere. The Things We Cannot Say is a dual timeline narrative, so we are treated to one of Kelly’s emotionally charged contemporary stories along with a moving and immersive historical one, the two connected strongly by the threads of family. Poland’s history within the context of WWII is a very grim one, with the deaths of Polish citizens as a result of occupation totalling almost 6 million between the years of 1939 and 1945. The historical narrative within The Things We Cannot Say takes us back to WWII, inside occupied Poland, viewing the situation from the perspective of a Polish Catholic farming family.
‘To destabilise a group of people is not at all difficult, not if you are willing to be cruel enough. You simply knock out the foundations, and a natural consequence is that the rest begins to tumble. The Nazis knew this – and that’s why one of their very first tactics in Poland was to execute or imprison those likely to lead in any uprising against them. Aleksy and our mayor were among the first of almost one hundred thousand Polish leaders and academics who would be executed under the Intelligenzaktion program during the early days of the invasion.’
Kelly tells an authentic story in her historical narrative, and while it’s dark and grim, desperately sad and often horrifying, it’s also lit up with hope and there is so much love present. This story is very much an active demonstration on the power of small acts of defiance and in the belief that life is a gift that needs to be accepted, no matter the depth of loss and grief a person has endured. I was so moved by Alina’s story, it really was a case of me expecting one thing and getting entirely another – I mean that in the very best of ways and I just don’t want to say too much more because this really is a story best appreciated when you’re going in blind. I have to say one thing though, Kelly knows how to show love in its very best light, all kinds of love, and that’s a real gift in a writer.
‘The string of words that burst from his lips was a language I didn’t know, but our traditions were irrelevant in that moment – the depths of his loss transcended every one of our differences. We weren’t Jew and Catholic, we weren’t even man and woman – we were simply two human beings, grieving an inhuman act.’
Both the historical and the contemporary narratives within this novel were incredibly strong and each could have held their own as an independent story. Kelly took this one step further though and connected the two timelines in a way that is often not seen in dual narratives. She fused the contemporary to the historical when Alice travelled to Poland and from that point on, the separation between the narratives narrowed right down, giving you one story instead of two. If this is Kelly’s first foray into dual timelines, then she’s either been practising in secret or she’s a natural – either way, I am filled with awe at this author’s incredible talent.
‘Life has a way of reminding you that you are at the mercy of chance, and that even well-though-out plans can turn to chaos in an instant.’
Alice’s story was very relatable, I felt. I don’t have a child with special needs, but I am a mother of three children with a husband who has a demanding job with a lot of hours out of the home, so her focus on routines and the way she did everything herself to ‘make it easier and quicker’ was so much like my own life. Not giving your children any responsibilities and expecting your husband to fail…hmmm, anyway, moving on! Kelly has a real skill at writing about domestic life with clarity and understanding, the fears and triumphs, the pain and love. Each time I was with Alice, I could understand her completely, and I had so much empathy for her, so much admiration, and so much worry about everything she was carrying on her shoulders. Kelly presents life as a mother to a child with special needs with such vivid realism.
“I’m sorry I called Eddie a retard.”
“Oh, Callie. I know you are. Yesterday was a bad day all round, wasn’t it?”
“But maybe you don’t know the origin of that word, Mommy. It is a terrible word. It once was a legitimate medical term, but it’s been used to denigrate disabled people for decades now. I looked it up on etimologyonline.com. I committed a hate crime against my baby brother. And he doesn’t even know it, which makes it even worse, because only you and me and Daddy know what a terrible person I am. How can you ever forgive me?”
Alice’s parenting was a bit like a rubber band out of necessity, because with Eddie, she had a child with autism spectrum disorder and with Callie, she had a child at the opposite extreme in that she was intellectually gifted. Now, I might be reading too much into this and seeing things that Kelly never intended, but I thought this was no accident, particularly when you take Wade, Alice’s husband, into account.
‘I’ve long suspected that Wade suffers from the exact same challenge we have with Callie – his brain runs too fast, and unless he occupies himself with something really intense, he tends to work himself into knots.’
I couldn’t help but wonder if Eddie and Callie were just two extremes of the one disorder, to be honest. Each had their unique challenges, and each required a more specific type of parenting. Callie seemed to be just as much of a prisoner to routines as Eddie, just as prone to meltdowns when she wasn’t coping. It was interesting to read about a family with these opposing, yet eerily quite similar, challenges, and with Wade being very much like Callie, I couldn’t help but ponder more deeply on all of this. But like I said, I could be drawing conclusions that were not intended and my observations are merely that. I am certainly not stating here that intellectually gifted children have autism spectrum disorder, I am simply making connections about these particular characters within this specific book.
‘I forget sometimes that she has challenges too. I forget that the world is just as mystifying for Callie, who sees too much of it, as for Eddie, who understands so little. Just as Eddie needs me to make a way in this world for him, Callie needs me to help her navigate her own way.’
The family dynamics and the intricacies of marriage are examined fully and I think that Kelly does a marvellous job of picking everything apart, allowing the reader to fully relate to the characters even when they aren’t personally experiencing the same kinds of issues or life circumstances. Alice’s journey to Poland is more than just a trip overseas to solve a family mystery and give closure to her grandmother’s unfinished business. It’s a restart for Alice, for her family, and for the relationship between her husband and her son. To turn a corner, you first need to set out on a new road, and this is demonstrated so well in the way Alice’s family disassembles in her absence and then resets itself upon her return.
‘Life has a way of shattering our expectations, of leaving our hopes in pieces without explanation. But when there’s love in a family, the fragments left behind from our shattered dreams can always be pulled together again, even if the end result is a mosaic.’
The Things We Cannot Say is a novel that I recommend to all readers without hesitation. I have a feeling it will be in my top reads list at the end of this year. It’s a brilliant blend of contemporary and historical fiction that so many readers will be able to appreciate and relate to. A truly moving novel about love and tolerance.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of The Things We Cannot Say for review.
About the Author:
Kelly Rimmer has sold over 600,000 digital copies of her previous four novels: ME WITHOUT YOU, THE SECRET DAUGHTER, WHEN I LOST YOU and A MOTHER’S CONFESSION. BEFORE I LET YOU GO was Kelly’s first novel with Hachette Australia and was a Top 10 bestseller. Kelly lives in rural NSW with her husband, two children and fantastically naughty dogs, Sully and Basil. Her novels have been translated into more than 20 languages.
The Things We Cannot Say
Published by Hachette Australia
Released on 26th February 2019