In 1942, Europe remains in the relentless grip of war. Just beyond the tents of the Russian refugee camp she calls home, a young woman speaks her wedding vows. It’s a decision that will alter her destiny…and it’s a lie that will remain buried until the next century.
Since she was nine years old, Alina Dziak knew she would marry her best friend, Tomasz. Now fifteen and engaged, Alina is unconcerned by reports of Nazi soldiers at the Polish border, believing her neighbors that they pose no real threat, and dreams instead of the day Tomasz returns from college in Warsaw so they can be married. But little by little, injustice by brutal injustice, the Nazi occupation takes hold, and Alina’s tiny rural village, its families, are divided by fear and hate. Then, as the fabric of their lives is slowly picked apart, Tomasz disappears. Where Alina used to measure time between visits from her beloved, now she measures the spaces between hope and despair, waiting for word from Tomasz and avoiding the attentions of the soldiers who patrol her parents’ farm. But for now, even deafening silence is preferable to grief.
Slipping between Nazi-occupied Poland and the frenetic pace of modern life, Kelly Rimmer creates an emotional and finely wrought narrative that weaves together two women’s stories into a tapestry of perseverance, loyalty, love and honor. The Things We Cannot Say is an unshakable reminder of the devastation when truth is silenced…and how it can take a lifetime to find our voice before we learn to trust it.
I’m taking a few liberties with today’s review. The Things We Cannot Say follows a storyline that isn’t unlike The Notebook, and firmly falls into the historical/general fiction category. Why am I reviewing it here? Because it takes place in the era of World War II.
The Things We Cannot Say switches between two perspectives: teenager Alina in Nazi-occupied Poland, and her descendant Alice in modern times. The two women live lives that couldn’t be more different: pampered Alina, the only daughter in a family of three, descends into an existence of tragedy and hardship as the war progresses. She suffers while waiting for the man she loves as her only beacon. Alice struggles to find balance with a severely autistic child, an apathetic husband, and her dying grandmother. Alice turns to her history and birthright for guidance, and to find peace.
I always say that if you’re looking for horror, you really don’t have to look further than our own history. Alina’s narrative is the stuff of nightmares. Kelly Rimmer meticulously has Alina go through almost everything that this time had to offer. She watches loved ones get shot for virtually no reason in the streets, or sent to Auschwitz. She waits constantly for news she knows will be dreadful. She imagines every evil a soldier might do to her. All the while, she is slowly starving along with her family. There is very little hope in her story, to the point that sappy romance feels more like a relief than anything else. I actually breathed a sigh of relief whenever Alina met with Tomasz, because it meant the pain of the novel was on pause. It strikes a balance, between breathing between the bad moments and knowing the good won’t last. As a result, Alina grows into a powerful soul that would be amazing to watch if it wasn’t surrounded by so much horror.
In contrast, Alice’s narrative has strong moments, but pales in comparison to Alina’s. Her connection to her son, Eddie, and her grandmother is commendable, but the rest of her life is rife with cliches. What’s worse is that her relationship with them doesn’t make much sense. Her daughter, Pascale, is apparently a highly intelligent twelve-year-old who threw a horrible tantrum at the beginning book, and then is sweet and adorable the rest of it. She is clearly there to make Alice’s life easier, and the tantrum at the beginning reads like “see, she’s a normal preteen” when really, it’s an inconsistent character. Alice is madly in love with her husband, Wade, even though he is distant and uncooperative. It turns into a story about how the two must reach a compromise to repair their relationship, when really, he’s a jerk and the book needed to treat him as such. The family dynamic felt more like an afterthought than something important to the book.
However, Alice’s story is redeemed when she goes to Poland for her grandmother. Rimmer does a fantastic job of calling the past to the present as Alice walks through Poland’s streets, and as a result, Alice finds her peace in the past tragedy and horror. It becomes clear why Alice’s POV exists in the first place. As a society, we have to remember our past terrors in order to not repeat them. Even more significant is that Alice finds a way to repair her current strife using her rich history. There’s a great scene where the pieces naturally fall together, and redemption comes on all sides.
The Things We Cannot Say has its issues, but they don’t get in the way of the book having its impact. It was an emotional read, and an important one. It’s rare to see a book that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to World War II, and this one makes every page count towards the ending. I thank NetGalley and Greydon House for a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.