Songs for the Missing
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking; 287 pages; $25.95
Though more than 25 years have passed since the abduction of Adam Walsh from a Hollywood shopping mall riveted national attention to the plight of missing children, the prevalence of such crimes has not waned. And for those who live the reality each day, their struggle is honored and in some ways memorialized in Stuart O’Nan’s latest novel, “Songs for the Missing.”
The story is set in a small Ohio town against the backdrop of Kim Larsen’s typical teen angst. She is pulling away from parents whose relationship she disdains, working seven days a week at the Conoco to save money, and counting the days until she heads to college at the end of summer.
From the start the plot is demarcated by Kim’s mysterious disappearance, and it remains anchored to a conventional event timeline: the police investigation, possible suspects, shady revelations about Kim’s activities and those of her friends, the search and, of course, the waiting. Threaded throughout is the family’s transformation from people living separate, interior lives to a group knit together by the experience of a common tragedy.
But O’Nan’s story is really—subtly and in the details—about all of those who remain present in Kim’s absence. Her father lives behind a façade, “project[ing] the illusion that everything was fine,” (185) even after Kim’s disappearance when everyone knew “it was a front.” (185) Her mother is redefined by purpose in searching for Kim and helping others with missing children. Lindsay, the younger sister, is liberated by the opportunity of being “free to be her own person, ”(73) but her sadness becomes “an inner temple where she worshipped alone, untouchable.” (166) And the best friends and abandoned boyfriend, who go off to college, grow up differently and imcompletely, without her.
O’Nan’s writing is undeniably skillful, appropriately restrained and punctuated by exacting description. The pacing is spotless, and each clinical title—such as the stark “Known Whereabouts”—drives home the subject and tone. But as the characters’ lives move forward at a steady beat, the story trends to the tedious, especially in its predictability. Even though halfway through, each character seems like a different person—more free and exposed in the midst of devastating loss—the novel ends leaving the reader bereft as well. The book neither gratifies a need for specific closure nor lifts such a familiar story to an unexpected level.
But what O’Nan achieves is to draw attention back to the unfortunate reality that, while news of the missing may captivate the nation only momentarily, for the families it will never be viewed or experienced as an acceptable loss.
–Reviewed by Christine Thomas
For the Miami Herald