I can comfortably say that it has been a hot minute since I’ve picked up a book so emotionally impactful. There is no hiding that Unsaid has easily become a book that is near and dear to my heart, and today I’d like to talk about why.
As a veterinarian, Helena was required to choose when to end the lives of the terminally ill animals in her care. Now that she has died, she is afraid to face them and finally admit to herself that her thirty-seven years of life were meaningless, error-ridden, and forgettable. So Helena lingers, a silent observer haunted by the life she left behind—her shattered attorney husband, David; her houseful of damaged but beloved animals; and her final project, Cindy, a chimpanzee trained to use sign language who may be able to unlock the mysteries of animal communication and consciousness.
When Cindy is scheduled for a research experiment that will undoubtedly take her life, David must call upon everything he has learned from Helena to save her. In the explosive courtroom drama that follows, all the threads of Helena’s life entwine and tear as Helena and David confront their mistakes, grief, and loss and discover what it really means to be human.
Right away, the concept of Helena viewing the life she left behind after dying hooked. me. in. What life looks like after someone you loved has died is something I’ve lived through before, and as a result, I’ve often wondered what the lives of people that loved me will look like after I’m gone. That sounds super morbid, but honestly, by the end of this book, you will probably feel very comfortable with the idea of death because it happens a lot.
Helena is a person that in an alternative universe I’d like to be. She’s a successful vet, has a loving husband, and a house full of all types of furry creatures from dogs and cats to pigs and horses. She’s incredibly introspective, empathetic, and is always itching to do more. Her life is almost perfect until her diagnosis.
David is probably the epitome of the ideal husband: a successful career, extremely romantic, and at least tolerant of all of Helena’s animals even though he doesn’t quite understand the appeal. His life is almost perfect too until he’s suddenly a widower as the holidays roll around and now he’s stuck trying to care for all of Helena’s animals while grappling with her extremely untimely death. Fun. stuff.
In comes Sandy and her son Clifford. David hires Sandy to take care of the animals he hits a breaking point. They become paramount to David’s healing, as you can imagine living alone in the house you once shared with your now dead wife might hinder the healing process. Clifford shares Helena’s quality of unique introspection; Sally shares David’s grief.
Lastly, we have Jaycee, the primate Ph.D. scientist in charge of testing Cindy the chimpanzee to see if communication is truly possible in non-human animals. Jaycee has raised Cindy since she was practically born, and when the funding for her research runs out and she is told to pack it up and go home, Jaycee will do anything to save Cindy.
Above all, the characters in Unsaid are well-rounded. It’s easy to see parts of yourself in their personalities that make them memorable and important. They’re also flawed, and some have made mistakes they’re so ashamed of that they took them to their grave. Throughout the story, all secrets unravel and friendships are tested because things are not always as they seem.
This book is a page-turner. Things begin slowly, as you can imagine life seems to crawl to a haunting stop after someone you love has died. But quickly things pick up as the overarching plot between Jaycee and Cindy picks up. The pacing of this book is perfect for its turn of events, as well as its chapter length.
While I know the concept of lingering after you’ve died and being able to look at the life you left behind is not new in books whatsoever, I think Unsaid has a unique execution of this fictitious ability. And even though there are countless stories where a husband is made a widower to a disease taking his wife, I think Unsaid also has a unique execution of displaying how grief affects relationships. Although the events of this book are not unprecedented topics, I think the way they are portrayed is unique. Therefore, I would not call this a super cliche book at all.
Unsaid is a book that has wormed its way into my favorites, and that doesn’t happen often. I loved the fact that Helena is narrating the book from what I guess you would call the afterlife because she was able to give us unique insights that we would not have known otherwise. It also makes the emotional impact so much greater because she often tries to communicate with David despite knowing it’s futile. The desperation to say things that were left unsaid truly tore my heartstrings, and I think above anything, this book is a reminder that we are all extremely flawed mortals who just want to be understood, loved, and heard. Books that remind me about the important things in life tend to become special to me.
I also really loved the argument about the ethics of animal testing. Of course, I am biased here because I’m vegan and animal rights are something I am very passionate about, but even if you aren’t—this book may open your eyes to things you hadn’t known before. The opinion that humans possessing the ability to verbally communicate making them superior to all non-human animals was especially interesting to me, and arguments made during the court case both supporting and denouncing that assertion were equally as compelling.
Lastly, I want to touch on something I saw in another person’s Goodreads review of this book, and that’s the fact that at times, this book can be quite depressing. As I reviewed others’ comments, people have expressed hesitancy to read the book because they thought it’d be quite depressing, and so much so that it would ruin the message. Grief feels like it never ends, and in some way, it doesn’t. But I’d like to make it clear that in the book, it does get better. As the age-old quote goes: this too shall pass.
If you’ve ever read Unsaid, comment your thoughts! It seems to be a work that has led to somewhat polarized opinions, so I’d love to know yours!