Stewart O'Nan has a gift for introducing the everyday, the basic, even the so-called mundane, into a poignant story. He does that very thing in Songs for the Missing, his latest novel.
The question O'Nan addresses in this novel is, what happens next? His answer provides a tender, far-reaching, complex and incredible character sketch of tragedy and survival.
Kim is a teenager, barely 18 years old, who is about to leave the nest, so to speak, and begin college. She's not a bad kid, but she's not the best kid, either. She has relationships that are strained and prickly, fraught with change and peril. She yearns for freedom and adulthood, neither of which she will receive willingly from her family. It's not that she doesn't like them, but she has outgrown them in their current form. Change will occur, and soon — at the end of the summer — and she is anxious for that to begin.
We meet Kim right off the bat, which is good, because we need to know whom we will miss for the duration of the story.
What happens in this story is the anatomy of this family, though it perhaps mirrors many other families. It is painful to watch, ordinary yet profound, beautiful yet plain.
The story was simply told, yet magnificent. Readers were permitted into the inner sanctum of pain and confusion, in bed with the characters (so to speak), yet not once did I feel voyeuristic. Readers were kept in that inner sanctum and thus witnessed little of what police and others knew about the case. That was fitting and seemed a lot more realistic than a more traditional omnipotent storyteller. I liked that readers were not led by a narrator who could introduce them to the outsiders with the same level of intimacy as they were introduced to Kim's inner circle.
In this story, we see how each member of the family relates to each other, to others around them, to themselves in such a situation. In turn, I favored each member of the family: Fran, the mother whose loss matched her unflagging determination and memory; Ed, the father who found himself re-adjusting his definition of "caring" for his family; Lindsay, the younger sister left behind to face the aftermath.
Each character was realistic. I have watched families lose children, watched them learn a new dance around the gaping hole. I have heard their conversations, their grievances against authorities, life, their surviving family members. O'Nan captured them with grace and respect, reverence and unforgiving clarity. No one in these situations is a saint, nor are they sinners, and O'Nan allows each of them very human foibles and virtues.
Every time I tried to claim one character as my favorite, I changed my mind. I liked Nina, Kim's closest friend, who kept her secret as best she could but in the end was puzzled by the growth away from the place she and Kim shared. I liked J.P., who seemed to understand his role and how it evolved as the parents (inevitably) learned Kim's secrets, including the ones she shared with him. I sympathized with Lindsay, who saw her sister more clearly than anyone and whose wry observations were priceless. I worried about Fran, how her role changed as the situation changed.
The realism of the story unsettled to me, though I should have expected it from O'Nan. If you read it, and I hope you do, please let me know if it struck you the same way.