How to Read an Unwritten Language Critical Essays

Philip Graham

How to Read an Unwritten Language

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Gladys Kirby is a madwoman who cavorts among her multiple personalities with a comfortable agility that confounds her children, Dan, Laurie, and Michael, ages seven, nine, and eleven, respectively. A considerable portion of Graham’s novel explores the effects of Gladys’ bizarre behavior on her children, whose father, a nursery owner, prefers plants to people—particularly small, young people.

Dan, the youngest, acts out, getting into constant trouble in school and fighting in the school yard. Laurie, having inherited some of her mother’s tendencies, just acts, although her father does not want her to be involved in acting. Michael resorts to reading the things that are about him, the unwritten languages that surround everyone in the form of leaves and trees and bottle caps and, most important, gestures and spontaneous reactions.

Michael is the care giver and the conciliator within the family. His stint of working for his father ends because he has dealt badly with a moral dilemma at the nursery. Yet it is he who convinces old man Kirby to give Dan a chance in the nursery, where Dan discovers his metier.

Michael marries, first Kate, an artist who declines to paint human figures and who keeps her own secrets, then Sylvia, a meteorologist, the ending of whose first marriage he engineers. Michael easily gains people’s confidence and, when they allow him to buy a most prized possession—or when they simply give one to him—reveal the deeply dark secrets attached to the object in question.

Graham structures his novel and tells his stories with deftness and imagination. He touches on many intriguing topics, including chaos theory and its effects upon human relations.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 15, 1995, p. 70.

Chicago Tribune. November 19, 1995, XIV, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 29, 1995, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. C, November 26, 1995, p. 19.