Mouths Don’t Speak
Katia D. Ulysse
208 pages, $11.96
Reviewed by Elliott Turner
“The stench of dead bodies trapped under the rubble was overpowering” reports an anchorman to the horror of Jacqueline Florestant, the Haitian-American protagonist of Mouths Don’t Speak (Akashic Books, 2018). She has family in Haiti and an earthquake recently devastated the island. The novel opens with Jacqueline agonizing from afar over news of the earthquake. With telephone and power lines down on the island, she must get updates from journalists and broadcasters tending to “go wherever the tragedy was raw and fresh.”
In this dark and stirring domestic novel about family, loss, and mental health, Jacqueline tries to make good with her estranged family in tragic circumstances. Her efforts, though, do not always end as one would hope. Ulysse expertly captures the grief of expats witnessing a tragedy from afar, while also critiquing the globetrotting 24/7 news cycle that feeds off disaster porn.
Jacqueline feels anxiety, powerlessness, and depression; she is informed, but only superficially in terms of body counts. She has no luck calling her parents’ residence. She must wait and it’s agonizing. Her depression worsens; she stops showing up to her job as a teacher, and soon suffers from irregular sleeping patterns and nausea. She has a nervous breakdown, and eventually gives in to self-medication. She takes a pill “no bigger than an ant” and feels like she’s “floating above the couch.” The solution to her despair is not to find hope and support from those around her, like her husband and child, but a prescription to feel nothing. To exist but not be present.
Mental health and familial support — or the lack of it — are two key themes explored with compassion and detail in this novel. Very early on in the narrative, we learn that, even before the earthquake, Jacqueline’s marriage to Kevin was unhappy. Kevin, a soldier, suffers from PTSD after three tours in Iraq, and his mental health issues are largely unresolved. Like Jacqueline, Kevin self-medicates; he gets pills from a pharmacy in Canada. Also, due to his paranoia, he keeps a gun in the house, against Jacqueline’s wishes.
Kevin and Jacqueline share responsibilities and form the shell of a family unit, but lack affection and warm feelings towards one another. Kevin watches their young daughter, Amber, on Saturdays so Jacqueline can have free time to pursue artistic endeavors, but she still wishes that “the entire week [c]ould belong to her.” There is never any serious talk of couple counseling; they communicate poorly and are quick to anger.
Which raises this question: can the wounded help the wounded? Offering support to a depressed friend or relative can be taxing and difficult, and even more so when you yourself suffer. In the first half of the novel, the prospects for either character getting help, giving help, or the marriage improving appear grim.
Where family fails, friendship does offer a sliver of hope, in the form of Jacqueline’s budding friendship with Leyla Guerrier. Jacqueline wanted to improve her rusty Creole language skills, and saw Leyla’s instructor ad. So, on her free Saturdays, they start to meet in a coffee shop. In addition to language lessons, Leyla ends up providing comfort and support to Jacqueline. Leyla is somebody that can listen to Jacqueline without recrimination or passing judgment.
The latter half of the novel turns toward Jacqueline’s relationship with her parents. She and Amber visit them at their estate which boasts an impossibly tall privacy gate, a swimming pool big enough to swim laps, grounds covered in peacocks and breadfruit trees. It is a multi-story mansion with marble floors and “fit to receive royalty.”
Inside the posh setting, we quickly learn that all is not well and may never have been. Her mother is vain to an unsavory degree: she primps and preens in front of her vanity every morning while obsessing over clothing and country club gossip. Her father’s lethargy involves drinks on the veranda while skimming the newspaper from sunrise to sunset. Neither parent ever liked Kevin very much, which caused tension between them and Jacqueline, and we soon realize that the prospects for reconciliation are slim — Jacqueline’s parents are still too self-interested.
Ulysse shows that wealth is not a proxy for support, affection, and emotional well-being. The novel is a moving look at an individual’s resiliency in the face of tragedy and also arrested development by contagion. When no strong bonds of affection exist, who can we turn to for support? In Mouths Don’t Speak, the answer is not always family, and not always who you most expect. Or would hope.