Rachel has been left at the altar and returned home to her mother Eleanor, with whom she has a strained relationship. Eleanor is a renowned artist but a distant and rather cold mother. Both are still grieving their father and husband, Charlie. And now it’s time for Eleanor to reveal her secrets.
The scene is set for a dive back into Eleanor’s past: the story goes back and forth between the present and the early ’80s, when Eleanor was an art student newly arrived in London and adopted into the artistic set in Soho.
Although there are secrets for Rachel to discover, this is not a mystery novel. The unfolding story is predictable for the reader. There is some tension, but it’s vicarious tension as we accompany Rachel on her journey into the past rather than the tension of waiting to find out what happens next.
The Things We Left Unsaid is well written, well constructed, and a pleasure to read. The mood of the book is very much driven by the people in each scene. There’s a warmth and underlying tenderness, even melancholy, relieved by the fun and energy of some of the more vivacious characters.
On reflection, there is quite a lot of stereotyping but you do get sucked into the story, so that each character feels less like a stereotype and more like someone you used to know. I’m about Eleanor’s age and was a young Arts (not ‘art’) student in the early ’80s; this novel brought me right back to those days and the people I knew then. Reminding me of forgotten details, like how pubs served as an information hub to keep track of people before we had mobile phones. And how friends, and strangers, were constantly, constantly bumming cigarettes off each other!
Eleanor’s younger sister Agnes is a wonderful character, quirky and fun. She sees past Eleanor’s reserve to the warmth within, in a way that Rachel can’t. And this is one of the great strengths of this novel: it is really about how children do not, really, know their parents. They may spend their whole lives with them, but they don’t know their whole past. Only the selected highlights their parents have allowed them to know. Your parents’ siblings probably know them better than you do, and they connive in keeping parts of the past in the past.
And that’s part of what being a parent is. Allowing your children to grow up with as much of a clean slate as possible, unburdened by their parents’ past lives. Most of us don’t have big secrets to hide, but we did have lives before our children came along. No matter how much of those lives our children get to know about, they’ll never have the whole, lived, story.
By the end of the book, Rachel thinks she knows everything about her parents now. But because the reader saw the past through Eleanor’s experience 40 years ago, we see that Rachel only knows an edited version. She’ll never truly understand Eleanor’s experience and motivations. Eleanor’s past is gone for good. And Rachel will get on with building her own life.
I think the title ‘The Things We Left Unsaid’ is not just about the secrets that we keep from each other, but about how we each experience our lives essentially alone, in our own heads, in a way that we might never share with anyone. And when we die, that’s gone.
Which is quite sad, really.
“I also believe that parents, if they love you, will hold you up safely, above their swirling waters, and sometimes that means you’ll never know what they endured, and you may treat them unkindly, in a way you otherwise wouldn’t.”
― Mitch Albom, For One More Day
My thanks to publisher Arrow, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.
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