Review by Walter Cummins
Samantha Hunt subtitles The Unwritten Book an “Investigation.” The connotation of that word suggests a systematic analysis of clues. But what Hunt has really produced is a series of speculations about overlapping recollections in the hope of finding a unifying revelation that explains the many unknowns of her experiences, especially the relationship of life and death. She says:
And I enjoy the company of the dead. They are so quiet. They know things I don’t know. The dead leave clues, and life is a puzzle of trying to read and understand these mysterious hints before the game is over. Even if these clues are not coming from the dead. Even if I’m making the whole thing up.
She calls all that she does not know “holes.” And we—each of us—are full of them, the biggest resulting from the fact that we die and those we love and care about often die before us. She wonders, “Perhaps this is a self-help book I’m writing, a wellness manual that urges us to live closer to our dead.”
Hunt’s title, “The Unwritten Book,” may seem paradoxical because the book we hold in our hand, all 305 pages of it, exists; otherwise, how could we be its readers? It’s possible that title was one used by Hunt to refer to it in her thoughts during the five years she took to write it, keeping the work in progress a secret from everyone, not even telling her husband what she was up to. But in what may be a more crucial and meaningful sense, this book contains the concepts and subjects for a shelf of books, one actually begun and a number of others that deserve to have been written, the need for their existence an urgency in her mind.
She notes that her own fiction includes references to authors and titles completely made up, no more than a name and a title. But the non-existent, unwritten books that haunt the pages of this book have their germs in unexplored stories, most often about the dead, family members she knew, ancestors she did not, friends, acquaintances, and just people she had heard about.
She includes the completed chapters of her father’s, Walter Hunt’s, incomplete novel, a work he seems to have abandoned, adding the commentary of footnotes that suggest his sources, his thoughts about his characters, the connections to his own life, and suppositions on where he may have taken his plot. The existing chapters plant clues and mysteries, more concrete than those his daughter explores, but still a gathering of enigmas to be solved.
A subject that cries out to be a book is that of Hunt’s grandmother’s aunt, Ella, dead at twenty-one in a mental institution where she was taken after trying to run away from home on a freight train. Ella’s sister, Vera, dismisses her existence in one line: “Ella Mills, Sept. 1869. A precocious child. Died young.” A local newspaper offers a glowing obituary steeped in religious assumptions. Hunt craves to know this woman’s actual story, what really happened, but a book that does not yet exist, if ever.
Hunt’s telling of her own story in this book, the actual written part, feels like a spilling, her mind touching on a memory or a concept or a happening and just letting loose, one piece setting off a chain of connections. She says, “And what of the more complex unravelling of our minds, those thoughts that spin away from us? Sometimes I can’t stop talking, letting my insides out. Sometimes the reason I write is in order to get the language out of my body.”
But, for her that language may still amount to a work in progress. In a footnote to one of her father’s chapters, she tells, “When my novel The Seas was republished almost fifteen years after it first came out, I took the opportunity to change and fix many parts of that book.” A similar dissatisfaction runs through the present book, a perplexed sense that she has not yet found the words to capture what she really hoped to say. Even though a book is printed and bound, the one the author had hoped to create remains unwritten.