The Unspoken Years starts off with a gentle prologue and then launches into chapter one with the following, where the main character, Ruth, refers to her mother, Elizabeth:
“She was always crazy. Looking back, I see no doubt about it. It was a deceptive craziness, though, sometimes luminous and joyful. Even when it was, my brother and I knew it was important not to relax.”
What unfolds in an intense story of Ruth’s upbringing by her mother, a severely mentally ill woman, which leads to the mental and physical abuse of Ruth and her older brother Roger for many years. Elizabeth’s psychosis leads to wild and sudden mood swings, and her illogical wrath is taken out on her helpless children.
The trio lives an almost transient lifestyle with Elizabeth meagerly supporting her children and herself as a private flute instructor to other children. However, Elizabeth’s moods can change in an instant and without sound reason or notice, and she will pack up her children and their belongings in her vehicle and hit the road for a “new home” somewhere. Ruth and Roger cannot stand up to their mother, who is an imposing figure physically and mentally, but they share the camaraderie of damaged siblings who endure a painful, abnormal childhood. Neither Roger nor Ruth know the identities of their father (or fathers?) and there is no relationship with extended family, so Elizabeth is truly all they really have in life.
Fortunately for Roger, but unfortunately for Elizabeth, Roger gets a scholarship grant in engineering and “escapes” to college in Colorado – leaving Ruth alone with her mother over 1800 miles away. Roger does not want to abandon Ruth, but he has to get out when he has the opportunity. Sadly and predictably, Elizabeth’s mental illness continues to rage on, and Ruth must shoulder the burden alone, as well as experiencing horrifying events under her mother’s wrath, including the cruel death of her grandmother. Reading about Ruth’s life with her mother is often painful at times, and the novel reads like a memoir.
Ruth’s childhood is told from the perspective of Ruth “looking back” on her childhood after the death of her mother, and the reader anticipates the circumstances of Elizabeth’s death as the novel proceeds. When Ruth meets Evan, she has found someone who wants to convince Ruth that she needs and deserves more in her life – but that she must reach for it, and that her existence should be more than having to cope with her mother’s mental illness and abuse that stems from it. Such a notion seems like common sense, but it can be a revelation for someone like Ruth due to her upbringing.
Ruth’s story is one of a coming of age as she learns that it is not always possible to please one person and not let another go, that inevitably there are costs to even the true gifts in life. Ruth is not used to being loved and cared for, and she is met with a new challenge when she meets Evan. The Unspoken Years is one of the most intense coming-of-age novels that I have ever read, but it rings true and the author has a graceful writing style that makes this harrowing tale flow smoothly despite the wild, scary ride that is Ruth’s life – and her ultimate decision as to what she can change and whether she will take the step to make those changes.