The Things We Cannot Say

Harriet Shawcross

Unspeakable by Harriet Shawcross (Paperback ISBN 9781786890078) book cover

Available as Paperback, eBook, Downloadable audio

From award-winning journalist and film-maker Harriet Shawcross comes a deeply personal exploration of silence, taboo and how and why words fail us

As a teenager, Harriet Shawcross stopped speaking at school for almost a year, retreating into herself and communicating only when absolutely necessary. As an adult, she became fascinated by the limits of language and in Unspeakable she asks what makes us silent.

From the inexpressible trauma of trench warfare and the aftermath of natural disaster to the taboo of coming out, Shawcross explores how and why words fail us. From the mountains of Nepal to New York’s theatre district she travels the world meeting people who constantly wrestle with language. She studies the work of George Oppen, a poet who couldn’t write a line for twenty-five years, interviews Eve Ensler whose play The Vagina Monologues gave voice to the truths of female sexuality, and meets the founders of The Samaritans who have been listening silently to those in need since the 1950s.

A beguiling mix of memoir, history, literary criticism and investigative journalism, Unspeakable is a moving and unprecedented study of the power of silence.

“A personal study of silence … As a teenager, Harriet Shawcross stopped speaking for a year. Her attempt to make sense of that experience investigates the essence of language itself … Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Unspeakable is a deeply felt attempt at making sense of this period in her life, and of how others manage when words fail them … [A] compassionate book”

See more reviews

“Extremely affecting … Shawcross writes eloquently … Caring, inquisitive”
Stuart Kelly

“Elegant … Shawcross can certainly write”

“Shawcross has set herself the challenge of exploring these wordless moments in order to examine how silence moulds our personalities and shapes our lives … A compelling idea … well-told and engaging”
mail On Sunday

“There is a lot of fascinating material here, from meeting an artist who turned speechlessness into a six-month project … to the story of George Oppen, the objectivist poet who ceased writing amid the McCarthyist churn of postwar America”
sunday Times

Harriet Shawcross

Harriet Shawcross is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. She obtained an MA in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of East Anglia, and was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Unspeakable is her first book.