Coffee Break Review: Unknown Caller

By Jennifer Levasseur

We all know, to paraphrase Whitman, that each of us contains multitudes. Without any contradiction, we are different versions of ourselves when we speak to our bosses, when we see a stranger fall on the sidewalk, when we’re in the dark whispering to a partner and when we answer a telemarketer during dinner. These variations trouble us more or less, but we—usually—recognize a continuity. We know what makes us us. And we usually assume, or hope, that other people see us as we see ourselves—at least the best of ourselves.

Many novels tackle the problem of the unknowable other. Some shift among points of view that leave us unsteady in what we think we know. Too often, these unstable perspectives can feel contrived rather than revealing something true about how people really live. Then, a novel comes along that not only thrills but questions everything we think we know about how we come across to others, who we are when we’re left alone and how well we can possibly know those closest to us. One that truly shows how varied our many selves can be, depending on what we allow to show.

While she’s published three previous novels and a collection of stories, I hadn’t heard of Debra Spark. In one of those moments of aimless searching online, the cover of Unknown Caller, her new novel published by Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction series*, jumped out at me and its premise lured me in: a man receives frequent late-night calls from his first wife, somewhere out in the world with the daughter he’s never been allowed to meet. The jarring, demanding calls dwindle until she breaks the silence with another middle-of-the-night demand from an undisclosed location: she wants to send their seventeen year old to him for the summer.

Joel had been married to Liesel for only five months, after which she fled without explanation. He had no idea she was pregnant until the first phone call five years later, demanding child support.

In normal families, a late-night call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart finally giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first-century offering, as it does, an escalating range of horrors.

But the Pearlmans are not a normal family. When the phone rings at 2:00 a.m. at their house, it is always her calling. From Geneva or Paris or London. They can never be sure where she’s taken up residence, only that the call will be long-distance and unpleasant.

When Idzia fails to show up at the airport and appears on no airline passenger list, Joel can’t contact her mother, and he’s not sure whether the whole proposal has been an elaborate hoax. He and his wife suffer a fresh wound at the absence of someone at the center of their lives whom they’ve never known. The calls cease.

Spark deftly shifts among perspectives and timeframes, from a farmhouse in Maine to a bakery in Paris, a run-down holiday motel in Barbados and a share-house and theater in London. She shows us, in sharp, page-turning prose, the ways that people’s perspectives shift and coalesce with time and absence, the ways new locations allow us to morph into the people we’d rather be, how easily we can slip out of ourselves if we’re willing to leave everything and everyone—even ourselves—behind.

Unknown Caller jolted me again and again as I ploughed through it, wanting nothing more than to be confined to my sofa until I finished. Then I spent many days inside the world of the novel, teasing out my feelings about the characters, experiencing a visceral pain at what they’d lost, putting new words in their mouths, giving them other chances to find a better way. I kept feeling their outrage, their confusion, their desire to be loved and understood. Spark rattled me even as she gave me one of my most pleasurable reads of the year.



*Publisher of the wonderful novel My Bright Midnight, set in 1945 New Orleans, by Josh Russell.




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