I love being wrong about books. Take STILL MISSING, Chevy Stevens’s impressive debut novel. I was absolutely sure that it was going to be a dry psychological study of the aftermath of a tragedy. The narrative consists of a series of monologues that take place in a psychiatrist’s office. Annie O’Sullivan is the patient, the survivor of a kidnapping and period of brutal captivity. My initial thought was Okay. We already know she lives. So what’s the point? But it wasn’t long before my hair was standing on end. Have you ever tried to read a book where you were so terrified of what would happen next that you had to cover your eyes? That describes a good third of my experience with STILL MISSING.
So what occurs? In a series of sessions that substitute for chapters, O’Sullivan lays out what transpired over the course of her kidnapping, captivity, escape and the aftermath. O’Sullivan, a real estate agent, was conducting an open house for a client when she was taken by a total stranger. The abductor, who is christened by her as “The Freak,” is a monster. There are no two ways about it. He spirits her off to an unknown location where she is secreted away in a secured cabin and subjected to an abusive regimen for the purpose of rendering her totally docile for as vile a purpose as one can imagine. When she is unexpectedly given an opportunity for escape and retribution, she does so.
What more can happen? As it develops, O’Sullivan’s ordeal is not over. In fact, the aftermath of what she has gone through is just beginning. She talks about caged birds who, when confronted with an open door, don’t fly out of their confining quarters. Just so. The second half of the novel is about O’Sullivan’s tentative steps toward recovery, though it is clear that, at least in some areas, she can at best achieve an acceptance of “the new normal.”
The remainder of the book not only deals with recovery, but it also concerns revelations, some of which are shocking. And it is here where the reader acquires the full revelation of how powerful a writer Stevens truly is. Don’t think that the climax is far-fetched; I would be willing to lay odds that anyone reading the book can think of a number of people who are capable of doing what is done to O’Sullivan, and who can justify it with the same degree of conviction as is displayed in the final pages of this incredible work.
Stevens is currently working on her second novel. If STILL MISSING is any indication, her literary abilities run long, deep and strong. Her characterizations are vivid and unforgettable, and she has the ability to chill with but a few carefully chosen words, to create unforgettable imagery in a short passage. You will take parts of the book with you to your grave.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 28, 2011