In the hands of a lesser writer, Songs for the Missing could have been an exercise in bathos.
The subject of Stewart O'Nan's 12th novel is every parent's nightmare: the disappearance of a child. It's a story as familiar as a photo on a milk carton, as unimaginable as death.
It's also a situation that has been the basis for countless tearjerking and predictable movies and TV episodes. Not in this novel; Songs for the Missing has an emotional austerity and courage that make it far more moving.
The book begins in a golden age, the kind of moment that glows in the memory for decades: "July, 2005. It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow. The last summer, the best summer, the summer they'd dreamed of since eighth grade, the high and pride of being seniors lingering, an extension of their best year."
Kim Larsen is the girl with the Chevette (her grandmother's old car). Kim is pretty and popular and athletic, a little bit of a wild child, a little bit of a smart aleck. She and her best bud, Nina, work at the Conoco station at the Interstate 90 exit to Kingsville, Ohio, her small-town hometown, and Kim can't wait to leave for college.
Little more than a month from that planned departure date, she spends the morning helping her younger sister, Lindsay, practice driving, then passes a few lazy hours swimming in the nearby river with her boyfriend, J.P., Nina and other friends. Due for work, she tells Nina, "See you there, Squinky Square," drives off — and vanishes without a trace.
Hours pass before anyone realizes it. Her family thinks she's working her shift, Nina thinks she has blown it off. Once her absence is undeniable, the police seem grudging — Kim, after all, is 18. Kids take off, even though parents always say their child wouldn't.
But once it becomes clear something dire has occurred, the media swarm in, the search parties amass, and Kim becomes a face on a thousand fliers, the kind we notice posted on the window of the convenience store, thinking, "Looks like a sweet girl" — and then forget.
O'Nan takes us into the lives of the people who hang up those fliers, update the Web sites, plead for their child's return, organize fundraisers to continue the search — and watch their own lives turn unrecognizable.
The shattering effects of such random events on teenagers and their families is territory O'Nan has explored before; his 2003 novel The Night Country revolved around the victims and survivors of a lethal car crash.
Unlike that kind of event — in which before and after, alive or dead are clear categories — Kim's disappearance plunges her family and friends into an utterly disorienting limbo.
O'Nan masterfully moves the third-person narrative among the viewpoints of several characters, both to build suspense and to reveal how each person knows a different Kim.
The book focuses mainly on Kim's family: her father, Ed, a real estate agent; her mother, Fran, who works in a hospital emergency room; and her sister, Lindsay. Kim's parents love her deeply but know as much about her daily life as any 18-year-old's parents — that is, not much, and mostly what she wants them to know. To Lindsay, she's both ideal and irritant — Lindsay is the grind, the klutz, the loner, known as "Little Larsen" and eager to be out of Kim's shadow. Until Kim disappears.
At first, the family reacts to Kim's absence by flinging themselves into searching for her. They lead hundreds of volunteers through fields and riverbanks to hunt for clues, they step out their front door to face TV cameras, they chivy the police.
In those melodramatic movies about vanished teens, such methods work. O'Nan recounts, in spare but evocative prose, what happens as the days and weeks and months pass, the volunteers dwindle, the satellite trucks pursue another breaking tragedy, and the family and friends of the missing child must face themselves.
One of the great strengths of Songs for the Missing is that very little of what happens then is what you might expect — and yet it rings entirely, heartbreakingly true.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.