Thursday, February 12, 2009

Songs For The Missing by Stuart O'Nan

In the first chapter of this book, we meet Kim Larsen, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in northern Ohio, savoring the last days of summer before heading off to college. She is nothing remarkable—just a young high school girl in Everytown, USA. And then she disappears.

Somewhere between hanging out with her friends at the river and her job at the gas station, she goes missing. It takes her family until the next morning to realize that Kim never came home the night before. As they call around to friends, they begin to suspect the worst.

The novel shifts viewpoints between those most affected and makes us feel the weight that presses down on the family in every moment. As the hours, then days, then months and years pass, everyone is pulled between the need to carry on with life and the guilt of not spending every waking moment in search of Kim. Her father must eventually go back to work, her friends must go off to college, her mother obsessively organizes fundraiser and awareness events but still must go to the mall and feed the family. And in all of it, we feel the anguish of not knowing.

This is both the central strength and greatest frustration of the book. It’s not a suspense thriller or crime novel in the traditional sense. There are no fast-paced chase scenes. There is no trail of clues. The novel leaps in the air in the first chapter, and then hangs there, coming down like a helium balloon. Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) is quoted on the book’s back cover. And although the subject might be familiar to Lehane fans, the pacing and plot is the polar opposite. It is a meditation in loss, poetic, reflective, and ultimately painfully realistic.

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