Unspeakable Things – Jess Lourey

It is a supreme compliment from me to say this book reminded me of Jane Smiley’s work. Cassandra “Cassie” McDowell and her older sister Persephone “Sephie” are 12 and about 14 when we meet them, living on a farm and going to school in Lilydale, MN. Cassie is the narrator and her character is why you want to read this book. The girls’ father, an artist with a master’s degree is degenerating before the family, into drink, questionable dealings, sexual addiction, out-of-control parties, and anger arising from PTSD or who knows what. Cassie is on high alert for her safety, especially at night when his behavior alerts the girls to go to bed early, not to drink water in case they might have to pee during the night, not to rock the boat. Their mother, also with a master’s degree, is a popular high school teacher trapped in her marriage and yet refusing to discuss other options or her husband’s instability. She is complicit and she is a victim. Yet the family also plays cribbage, gathers eggs, does chores together and the girls are encouraged to do well in school and have moments of positive true connection with each parent. Just like many dysfunctional families. And woven throughout the story is the kidnapping and assault of one boy after another, all from Cassie’s school. This part is based on events in Lourey’s childhood town. These assaults provide a focus for Cassie to learn more deeply about her small town’s dark side. Is the kidnapper the popular gay band teacher? The local cop who doesn’t seem concerned even after a boy from the “right” side of town disappears? The weirdo neighbor who sometimes drives behind their school bus? The unidentified peeping tom? What friend or acquaintance will be taken next? This is a 1980s coming-of-age book, with a mystery to solve. It is eloquently written with amazingly drawn characters and too-believable scenes of how people fall into dysfunctional behavior and relationships. It reads like a deeply memorable memoir. Some people have complained about the ending because many loose ends were certainly left loose. I loved the ending because by then we know — deeply– who Cassie is and we can fill in the blanks about what happened and why. BUT: if you cannot stand the ending, I LOVE that Lourey in fact wrote us an epilogue to read, only after you finish the book! It’s on her website, linked to booksellers and it will satisfy you as to what the author would have said about background stories, secrets, and the characters’ future. That was fun.

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