Why are books about disappearing high school kids so popular of late? I just read the third of a disappearing-kid-trifecta, Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, which follows Goldengrove by Francine Prose (reviewed here) and The Local News by Miriam Gershow (reviewed here).
This is the second book I’ve read by O’Nan, the first being Last Night at the Lobster. It is about the impact of the disappearance of 18 year-old Kim Larsen on her her parents and sister, Fran, Ed and Lindsay Larsen, a typical Midwestern family living near Erie, Ohio. It’s not a mystery novel – O’Nan’s goal isn’t to solve the puzzle of what happened to Kim, but is instead a painstaking depiction of the days, months, and years that follow the disappearance of a beloved child.
Just like in Last Night at the Lobster, O’Nan writes in detailed, almost encyclopedic prose. No observation is too minor for his careful eye. This works both to the benefit and the detriment of the novel. 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. The benefit of this style is that the book is unflinchinlgy honest about the swings between hope and despair that Kim’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.
The detriment of all the detail is that for the reader, there are no literary cues to signify when something important was about to happen. Often, when an author slows down the pace of prose, it’s a sign to pay attention. With Songs for the Missing, that’s the whole book. And yet, there were important points having to do with Kim’s disappearance, details her friends knew, that O’Nan alluded to through only shadowy mentions. The result is that there are mundane passages told in extraordinary, arguably unnecessary detail, and important ones told in tiny flashes of vague allusion.
I listened to Songs for the Missing on audio. The narrator – Emily Janice Card – reads with precision and dispassion, the way O’Nan writes. Sometimes I found her narration of the voices – particularly those of Fran and Ed – to be too lighthearted and casual for parents who had just lost a child. I kept putting myself in their shoes and finding their tone of voice a little unrealistic.
Songs for the Missing was similar to Goldengrove in its understatement and quiet devastation. The Local News, on the other hand, was darker and grittier and, in my opinion, a more satisfying read. But I am glad I read Songs for the Missing, and will probably read more by Stewart O’Nan.