What follows is a zig-zag of concerns, a real helter-skelter of perspectives. I perhaps have a higher tolerance of this kind of book than some readers, who may find it needlessly quirky, since I have written in this form myself and am profoundly convinced of the truth of Laurence Sterne’s phrase “great wits jump”. So in her foray into silence, Shawcross takes in the poetry of George Oppen (who, I must confess, I had not read) who didn’t write for a quarter of a century; Chad Varah and the founding of the Samaritans (Shawcross herself having been a Samaritan); Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and what saying “taboo” things might accomplish; Buddhist and Quaker uses of silence in worship; #MeToo; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; coming out as bisexual; and the great unsaid: death. As the reader will see, it is a particular kind of choreography to weave together these diverse and sometimes divergent topics. But it works, especially in the sense of “conceit” that the Metaphysical Poets used: finding the similarities in the dissimilarities.
There’s so much interesting stuff here — Shawcross volunteers as a Samaritan, visits a silent order of nuns, spends time in Nepal — and the writing is good, but I found myself wanting to read either a family memoir or an inquiry into silence, rather than this hybrid. It’s the vogue to weave a personal story around a wider theme, but Shawcross’s struggles feel slight juxtaposed with those who have suffered horrendous sexual violence...I finished the book still wanting to know more about the grandmother and the family and how Shawcross’s parents managed to stay together. We are also left unsure whether Shawcross has achieved her aim of exorcising silence from her life.
Shawcross is all for speaking out and bearing witness, especially in cases of abuse and trauma. Having been a volunteer Samaritan herself, she is eloquent about the benefits of Chad Varah’s simple but revolutionary idea: expressing yourself can save your life — but you need to find a listener first, and it’s best if that listener says nothing back... Shawcross seems to have got a lot out of proportion here, and it’s bemusing to think that a mature, educated woman in the 21st century could feel significant trauma from kissing another woman and need to go on a Buddhist retreat to help come to terms with it. Shawcross wants to tell stories and see patterns; she is absolutely earnest about expressing her own dilemmas and obviously feels them deeply but, if anything, ends up just saying too much.
Shawcross’s reliance on her own adolescent silence, her anxiety over sex and the slow self-revelation that enabled her to say “I like women” out loud, distorts Unspeakable into a fuzzy mix of memoir and cultural history that can’t quite find the clarity for which it strives...As the book turns towards speaking out rather than staying quiet, it becomes harder to hear what it is saying. Unlike Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, another study of an elusive interior state, Shawcross never quite finds the balance between analysis and memoir, turning inwards again and again. A trip to Nepal to explore the limitations of talk therapy for victims of the 2015 earthquake, for example, is muddied by her own emotional traumas while hiking with her best friend five years earlier. Silence, especially in a world where everyone is primed to broadcast themselves constantly, remains an intriguing subject, but Unspeakable tries to say too much.
I don’t want to discount what Shawcross has been through emotionally in her life. Nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to see her moving rather seamlessly on the page from writing about those who have lost everything in an earthquake to the trouble she had coming out, or the death of her grandmother from old age, as if these things are similar... there are some lovely images in Unspeakable – and she is obviously in possession of a curious and interesting mind. But there is simply not enough for a book here – or not for this book, in this form.