Silence is not always golden, as the prizewinning British journalist and filmmaker Harriet Shawcross attests in Unspeakable. At the age of 13, she tells us, she lost the ability to speak more than was absolutely necessary to function. Nearly one year of silence left its brand on her life and her personality. It had its upsides: adept “at disappearing, at watching, listening”, she became an excellent interviewer. Yet the puzzle of it, and the pain, continued to haunt her.
In Unspeakable, Shawcross looks at the ways in which breaking a silence can be healing. She interviews Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, and takes part in the work of the Samaritans. Travelling to post-earthquake Nepal, however, she discovers that “talking cures” don’t necessarily work across cultural boundaries. Shawcross wonders if there is “a point at which all narratives run aground”. At a silent retreat she discovers “a sense of visceral and deep joy”.
Weaving through sections entitled “Fear”, “Sex”, “Death”, “Silence” and “Last Word” are two narrative strands. One is a memoir of coming out. The second is a literary biography of the poet George Oppen. The American’s poems, Shawcross tells us, are full of “gaping white space”, as if “he doesn’t want words to get in the way”. The only point of reference he trusted was his own experience. Late in life, he pinned above his desk a piece of paper that read, in part, “no narrative but ourselves”. Shawcross comments: “I love this idea – that all of life is inevitably refracted through our personal experience.” She intends her own story to illuminate deeper truths. “It cannot just be narcissism,” she writes, adding, “I hope.”
It’s common these days for writers to use a personal lens to frame larger subjects, and rare to find a work of nonfiction that isn’t self-referential. Unspeakable is engaging and informative, and even thought-provoking in parts. But the link between the author’s adolescent silence and her difficulty in coming out feels less than solid, and the piecemeal confessional passages imperfectly cohere with the journalistic investigations, travelogues and poetics. She reveals in the end there was much about herself and others that she kept out of the book. Life, she observes, “is a quilt of secrets”. Unpick it, and “the whole thing falls apart”. I respect her ethical stance. Still, it’s a quilt on a bed that she has made herself.
Canongate, 352pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Harriet Shawcross, Unspeakable". Subscribe here.