As a fan of domestic fiction, I read a lot of what I call “parent’s worst nightmare” books. (Why I am drawn to these books is another story for another issue…) A large subset of parent’s worst nightmare books are about disappearing kids. I think there are a few reasons why authors are driven to write so frequently about that topic. First, until the mystery of the disappearance is solved, there is a lot of suspense and tension to propel the action forward. Also, the disappearance of a child understandably puts a big strain on a family, so there are plenty of relationship dynamics to explore. Third, the author has a great deal of freedom to explore different possible explanations – a child running away, an abduction, an accident – which makes the story unpredictable. And finally, let’s face it, a disappearing child is such a painful scenario that it’s likely to get a reader emotionally involved, quickly.
Looking back on the books I’ve read on this topic, here are a few that stand out:
The Local News by Miriam Gershow (Spiegel & Grau) The Local News is about a 16-year old high school student whose older brother disappeared at the start of his senior year. While her parents sleepwalk through their grief, their daughter tries to come to terms with the disappearance of a brother about whom she was deeply ambivalent. There’s a lot going on – the mystery of what happened to the brother, the effect of his disappearance on his family, the narrator’s search for identity in a household in which she is practically invisible, and the question of whether one is obligated to love their family members. Gershow’s explorations of the ways in which public and private grief intersect – who is truly allowed to mourn the loss of this boy? who really knew him? – and her meticulous analyses of the politics of high schools and small communities are very compelling.
The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond (Bantam Discovery) The Year of Fog focuses on the painful days and months following the disappearance of a photographer’s fiance’s daughter. It is very readable, and the suspense of the mystery propels the reader along. In addition to simply telling an engrossing tale, Richmond explores the nature of memory and photography, and how they can each trick people in believing different things and shaping their perspectives on life.
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan (Viking) This isn’t a mystery novel, but is instead a painstaking depiction of the days, months and years that follow the disappearance of a beloved child. O’Nan is extremely gifted at achieving realism – in all of its mundane and plodding glory – by recreating a scene or exploring a character’s inner thoughts with precision and understatement. Songs for the Missing is unflinchingly honest about the swings between hope and despair that the missing daughter’s parents experience in the tortuously slow days and months after she disappears. O’Nan shifts perspective throughout the book, which further highlights the impact that each member of the family has on the others’ grieving process.
Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin) In Is This Tomorrow, set in the 1950s, the disappearance of a neighborhood boy deeply affects his sister, best friend, and best friend’s mother, a single woman who has been shunned by the Boston suburb where she lives. Ultimately this book is about disconnection and isolation, and how secrets held for years can have terrible implications for those kept in the dark. The simplicity of Leavitt’s writing, the way that five characters’ lives are so seamlessly integrated throughout the book, and the fact that the reader has no idea how the book is going to end, all make this a very good read.—Gayle Weiswasser