Book Review

The Silent Unseen

The Silent Unseen

  • Author: Amanda McCrina
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: April 5, 2022
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Thank you to BookishFirst for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: violence, grief, torture, gore, blood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poland, July 1944. Sixteen-year-old Maria is making her way home after years of forced labor in Nazi Germany, only to find her village destroyed and her parents killed in a war between the Polish Resistance and Ukrainian nationalists. To Maria’s shock, the local Resistance unit is commanded by her older brother, Tomek—who she thought was dead. He is now a “Silent Unseen,” a special-operations agent with an audacious plan to resist a new and even more dangerous enemy sweeping in from the East. When Tomek disappears, Maria is determined to find him, but the only person who might be able to help is a young Ukrainian prisoner and the last person Maria trusts—even as she feels a growing connection to him that she can’t escape.

I’m normally extremely hesitant to read historical fiction centered around WWII because so much of it includes information about the Holocaust, and it isn’t typically portrayed accurately. So instead, I wind up reading memoirs written by survivors. However, this book focused on a different aspect of WWII—the fate of the people who were liberated from Nazi occupation only to be occupied by Soviet forces. And there are pockets of resistance among the people of Southern Poland, namely the Polish resistance and the Ukrainian nationalists. 

This isn’t a subject I know much about, and was curious to learn more about. And this book did it in a great way, allowing information to unfold slowly through the course of the story, about the various efforts towards liberation for two different yet intertwined groups—the Polish people and the Ukrainian people. There’s some discussion about national identity being at odds with ethnic identity, and how the war has broken down bonds between these people who lived and worked together for generations.  

“It was perhaps too simple, even five years ago, to think we were all just Polish by virtue of being from Poland. Even I, relatively privileged and sheltered, could have told you that was too simple. Even then I knew that in some schools and universities, Jewish students were made to sit on separate benches in the classrooms and lecture halls; even then I knew that in Wolyń Province, ethnic Ukrainians had been forced off their land all through the twenties and thirties to make way for ethnic Poles. But despite that, despite everything, we were all Polish.There were Jews in Polish uniform. There were Ukrainians in Polish uniform. It had taken this war to tear us apart in ways that seemed irreparable.”

When the Soviets occupied areas of Poland, things certainly didn’t improve for the people. The Soviet rule was very repressive and controlling, and certainly didn’t bring peace to the people of Poland. Knowing what I know of Poland and my family’s experiences in the country, I was a bit reluctant to sympathize with their plight. After all, Poland was complicit in murdering and oppressing my own family for generations. But the characters of Maria and Kostya were hard not to empathize with. They’re just young people trying to survive and hold together what is left of their families, and coping with the trauma they have experienced as best they can.

“This was another trick I taught myself after Tomek died. I made plans—comfortable, manageable little plans. I focused on little things, practical things, things I knew I could control. One step, then another. It worked if I kept myself busy enough—if I didn’t stop taking those steps. If I didn’t stop to think. Busyness was my ally. Stillness and silence were the enemy.”

Maria was taken to be a slave laborer for the Nazis, but managed to escape only to find the Poland she knew as completely changed. And while she isn’t affiliated with any of the groups involved, she still manages to be caught in the crossfire. As do many of the other innocent people in the towns and villages of her land. Soviet rule was brutal and oppressive, with everyone being under suspicion at all times.

“I knew enough about Soviet justice to know you were guilty until proven innocent. Sometimes even then.”

Kostya is a Ukrainian boy working with the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), trying to further their own national cause. He didn’t have an easy time of it either, undergoing harsh training tactics so that he’d be prepared to be a courier—an incredibly dangerous job. Both Kostya and Maria are damaged by their experiences, but staying safe takes priority for them. They don’t have much control over their surroundings, so they try to get by as best they can. And for Maria, she struggles to trust anyone or kind actions because in her world, everything has a cost.

“Kindness—genuine, unthinking, selfless kindness—just left me suspicious. I hated everything about this war, everything this war had done to me, but especially that.”

I quickly found myself engrossed in this novel. It taught me new things about the war that I wasn’t even aware of, such as what the Silent Unseen were, and all the different factions struggling for control over the area. The story is fast-paced, and the characters are easy to empathize with, making this a book that I flew through in record time. There’s a ton of action, and I read this on the edge of my seat, wondering what was going to happen to Maria and Kostya, and whether they’d be okay. The ending left things wrapped up, but still somewhat open ended, and I can’t help but feel curious to see how these characters move on and fare in the future. I’m so glad that I got the chance to read this book, and that I got out of my own way to give it a shot.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 8

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