Stewart O'Nan's prose is quietly powerful. As readers learned from his recent novel, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER, or any one of his previous works of fiction, his style is pared down, not quite minimalist but precise, each word chosen with care. His books do not lack emotion, however, and his latest effort, SONGS FOR THE MISSING, is emotionally charged and evocative, avoiding clichés and melodrama.
In July 2005 recent high school graduate Kim Larsen was working at a gas station, hanging out with friends and spending time with a boyfriend she was not in love with. She was counting the days until she departed for college, excited to be leaving her parents, sister and small Midwestern town behind and strike out on her own. The day she disappeared was like many of the days that summer: she gave her little sister a driving lesson, went swimming with her gang of friends and made plans for the night. She went home to shower and get ready for work and was never seen again.
In SONGS FOR THE MISSING we meet Kim just briefly. As soon as we begin to know her, she is gone. While some of the novel focuses on the search for Kim, the story is really about who she leaves behind and how they cope with her disappearance. Her mother finds strength in organization, formalities, details and research: she holds press conferences, creates websites, distributes buttons and keeps busy. Kim's father finds strength in the search itself, mapping out areas for search parties, putting up fliers and working with police. Her younger sister Lindsay retreats, finding solace in her room, trying to connect with Kim's boyfriend, J.P., all the while wondering if anyone knew the real Kim as she did.
Things move quickly at first. She is gone for just 24 hours, then 48, and her community is out looking for her and her car, adrenaline and hope keeping them going. But then it is days, weeks and months with no sign of her, and the police case stalls. Family and friends have to return to work to find a sense of normalcy while struggling with uncertainty. Kim's friends leave for college, and eventually Lindsay finishes high school and leaves home for college herself. O'Nan perfectly captures the tension that Kim's disappearance creates as her family, even as they try to go on with their day-to-day lives, are always watching and waiting for her return or anticipating news from the police. SONGS FOR THE MISSING is not as concerned with the resolution of this tension --- mostly because resolution inevitably brings more pain --- as it is with coping and grief, and the decision to mourn or not to mourn a person who has simply vanished.
Despite the tension throughout, there are no big surprises or plot twists in this book. O'Nan is interested in the personal and emotional lives of Kim's family and friends as they deal with loss, fear and heartbreak. Will they grow apart or closer together? Will they define themselves by this tragedy?
Narration shifts smoothly from character to character, among Kim's mother, father, sister and friends; we even have a few pages of Kim's thoughts as well. But each narrator is limited, not knowing what other people know and never letting themselves fully explore their own emotions and reactions. Readers, too, are left with questions unanswered. This type of realism is compelling and challenging, especially when paired with O'Nan's competent plotting and description.
SONGS FOR THE MISSING is an excellent examination of loss and trauma and a solidly written novel. The story is occasionally fragmented, reflecting the fractured lives of the characters, but O'Nan's use of this type of device feels natural and not at all contrived, lending itself to the tale he is telling.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011
Songs for the Missing