‘The Unwritten Book’ by Samantha Hunt book review

Ron Sexsmith, the wistful Canadian singer-songwriter, mourns the loss of songs that never were. “For every song you ever heard, how many more have died at birth?” he wonders on his 2001 album, “Blue Boy,” suggesting a vast graveyard of unrhymed lyrics and unstruck chords. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, meanwhile, sees perfection in nonexistent music. “The best song will never get sung / The best life never leaves your lungs,” he claims on his band’s 2004 album, “A Ghost Is Born.”

On this spectrum of missing what can’t be known, writer Samantha Hunt falls somewhere in the middle. A daughter of parents who abandoned their literary aspirations to support their family of eight, Hunt asks, “What projects don’t exist because I exist instead?” While considering German writer WG Sebald’s death at age 57, Hunt imagines a library filled with “all the books dead authors would never write because they had died too young.”

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Hunt visits that and other made-up libraries throughout “The Unwritten Book: An Investigation,” the intense new memoir/essay collection from the novelist and short story writer behind “Mr. Splitfoot,” “The Dark Dark” and other works that search for life among the shadows. Just as Tweedy champions the music of fictional bands in his song, Hunt is fascinated by books that appear only in other books, books destroyed by fearful authors of publication and books left unfinished or unattempted by their creators.

“I have lost my mind to books,” Hunt admits early in “The Unwritten Book.” She’s hardly complaining. In books, Hunt finds her de ella love of life, of simply being de ella, reflected back at her de ella in all manner of language, people and ideas. She also sees in books reminders of life’s inescapable end and the grim reality that “most of our lives are spent shrinking, eroding into bits and decaying.”

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Make no mistake: “The Unwritten Book” is a downer. At times, it’s a major one. Hunt writes of friends, neighbors and colleagues who died in the years she spent working on the book. Some died violently. Others were taken by covid-19. Hunt gazes into this darkness, but she never stops looking for the cracks. She understands, as Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in.”

“This piece seems to be written in the voice of someone who believes she’s okay with death,” Hunt, 50, writes in one essay, “as if I have calmly meditated on our mortality and rise above the fear. That is not true. I want to find a new story for dying.”

She discovers one such story in a desk that belonged to her father, who died at 71 of cancer. A longtime editor at Reader’s Digest, Walter Hunt wrote fiction in his spare time. He completed at least one novel, which he allowed his daughter de ella to read, and left three rough chapters of another, unfinished work he’d never told her about.

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This “unwritten book” is set in 1981 and involves a widowed magazine editor, government operatives and a mysterious organization whose members are suspected of being able to fly “without wings.” In the pages of her own book, Hunt reproduces her father’s text de ella, typos and all, viewing it as “evidence collected by a daughter / detective trying to interrogate her dead dad de ella.” The aborted novel becomes yet one more book to haunt her, and Hunt’s annotations of her reveal her to be both mystified by her and protective of her father’s effort.

In sharing her father’s writing, Hunt can’t help but examine her own work. She worries that “The Unwritten Book” is itself incomplete, that she won’t be able to “account for everything.” This thought arrives more than 300 pages after Hunt ponders where to begin “when writing a book about birds, words, books, death, hormones, collections, desire, letters, booze, family, birds? A circle where starts? Or more to the point, a circle ends where?”

It’s a measure of Hunt’s generosity — to the reader, but also to herself — that her answers to these questions evolve throughout the book. “Facts are singular,” she writes, “truth can be multiple.” Hunt seeks beauty in impermanence, whether it’s in an old car, the house in the movie “Poltergeist” or the boy band One Direction. Because everyone and everything will one day become an absence, to be alive is to be haunted, Hunt argues. The key is to acknowledge one’s ghosts, to keep them present, even when they’re terrifying.

In the book’s opening essay, Hunt imagines the dead demanding that she apologize for presuming to speak for them, an accusation she denies. “Faced with their steely silence I’ll plead senselessness,” she writes, turning not for the last time to the comfort of treasured books and those she can only hope to read.

Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages $28

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