Investigating a book of the dead in ‘The Unwritten Book’

Efi Chalikopoulou for The Boston Globe

Author of the brilliant short story collection “The Dark Dark” (2017) and the wonderfully odd and moving novel “Mr. Splitfoot” (2016), Samantha Hunt is one of our most interesting and bold writers. Now she has published her first work of nonfiction, “The Unwritten Book.” It’s a characteristically wild effort that defies genre distinctions, flits from the profound to the mundane with fierce intelligence and searching restlessness, and at its best, delves deep into the recesses of the human heart with courageous abandon.

Hunt’s fiction has always been obsessed with ghosts and haunting, darkness and the uncanny; in this newspaper, I once referred to Hunt as “an aficionado of the liminal.” “The Unwritten Book” is if anything even more consumed with the transitional, with mortality and immortality, the spectral and the mysterious, than her fiction has been. Because this time, it’s personal. “The Unwritten Book” is Hunt’s idiosyncratic version of a grief memoir, an alternately crazed and cool musing on grief, literature, and her late father’s identity as both a man and an aspiring writer.

The Unwritten Book referred to in the title isn’t actually unwritten, just unfinished; it’s a partially complete manuscript by her father de ella that she finds in his desk de ella only days after he dies at 71 of lung and colon cancer. But the phrase also refers to paths snuffed out, experiences aborted, stories never shared. There “was much more he should have seen in life,” Hunt laments. She is “unhinged” by her father’s dying from her, “distraught by the loss of stories he had n’t yet told” her.

The book’s subtitle is “An Investigation,” and Hunt appears as a kind of gothic Nancy Drew, “a daughter/detective trying to interrogate her dead dad.” “The dead leave clues,” she writes, “and life is a puzzle of trying to read and understand these mysterious hints before the game is over.” Hunt astutely parses her father’s words even as she refuses to reduce them to simple explanations, deftly teases out the relationships between his fiction and his life while allowing for mystery to remain, annotates and elaborates and expatiates with charm, wit, and an insistence on her father’s fundamental unknowability.

Intermittently, and covering somewhat less than half of “The Unwritten Book”’s total pages, Hunt presents two texts side by side: the chapters of her father’s book on the right, her annotations of these pages on the left. Printing her annotations of her in tiny font was a mistake — not only because it strains the eyes of her but also because it diminishes Hunt’s insightful, hilarious, eloquent words of her in relation to the relatively hackneyed prose of her father. With typical Hunt humor, she acknowledges that her father’s book de ella may not entrance us: “Apologies if this is boring you,” she says. Hunt herself never bores us; her father’s book by her unfortunately does.

But in the annotations and the chapters or sections without her father’s book, other vibrant characters emerge: Hunt’s daughters, with whom she shares a passion for the boy band One Direction, her editor, her long-suffering mother, her husband, and her five siblings, a “gang of Hunts” who “saved each other” as they navigated their father’s alcoholism, “detectives, alert to the slightest changes in scent, demeanor, and language.”

Hunt’s mind is capable and supple; her musings of her cover everything from the films of Werner Herzog and Tobe Hooper to the fiction of WG Sebald, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison to the music of Nick Cave, Gillian Welch, and Patti Smith. Watching her link wildly nonsensical topics is part of the fun. Referring to her mother’s de ella “drawerful of nail polishes beside a toy turtle beside a pink pillow beside an expired jar of my dad’s cancer drugs beside a golden statuette of the Virgin,” Hunt declares: “I make it make sense. I plot these points and create a chalk line around the ghost, all that’s missing.” But at times, this book could have benefited from a clearer chalk line; some readers will feel lost, confused by its jumble of styles, approaches, and stories.

At one point, Hunt wonders: “perhaps this is a self-help book I’m writing, a wellness manual that urges us to live closer to our dead.” If this is the case, it is literature that emerges as the best medicine and reading as the most salubrious activity. Reading and books have always enabled Hunt to commune with the dead, connect across boundaries of space and time with other voices, transcend human limitation and loss. “I carry each book I’ve ever read with me, just as I carry my dead — those things that aren’t really there, those things that shape everything I am,” she insists. “In books we can find our ways back to the worlds we thought were lost, the world of childhood, the world of the dead.” “The Unwritten Book” she ponders and enacts this art of losing with an intoxicating blend of humor and pathos.

THE UNWRITTEN BOOK: An Investigation

By Samantha Hunt

FSG, 384 pages, $28

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”

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