This novel tells the story of a family, a group of friends, and a small town that comes to grips with the disappearance of Kim Larsen, a vivacious and popular recent graduate preparing to leave her home in the Midwest for college. One evening she disappears on the way to work without a clue as to what happened other than that her car, a beloved Chevette, is missing as well. With very little to go on, the Larsens, Kim’s friends and the entire community pull together to find her, but without leads, it’s her past and what she left behind that threatens to break the bonds that were created or solidified by Kim’s life. Songs of the Missing is well written novel an engaging novel that proves how powerful reading can be when an author stays true to his or her characters.
There are many other good and engrossing novels, such as The Lovely Bones, that deal with lost and murdered children. What makes this book different is the way that the story’s narration shifts between characters from chapter to chapter and sometimes even within the same chapter. Over the course of her last days and the events after her disappearance, we hear from Kim, her parents, Ed and Fran Larsen, her sister Lindsey, her best friend Nina and her boyfriend J.P. With a lesser author this could have been disastrous, but O’Nan’s storytelling is as authentic as the voice of each of his narrators. As a result, there is an almost complete feeling of how the disappearance of a loved one eats at people at every stage. We see how terror drives Ed and Fran work around the clock when Kim is first missing while it is guilt that drives J.P. to do the same. We see how having no leads can cause a group of people to move from supporting each other to blaming and punishing each other. We see how fickle a community can be when a missing daughter is no longer the lead story on the news. A child’s disappearance is heartbreaking on so many levels.
What makes this novel most interesting is that the reader never learns those things that the narrators can not or will not admit to themselves. We get glimpses of what J.P. and Nina were hiding, but never all the details. When that part of Kim’s disappearance is revealed, Fran and Ed cut J.P. and Nina almost completely out of their lives as if doing so will cut those deeply unsettling things about their daughter from their minds just as sharply. I find as a reader it makes me feel uncomfortable not knowing what every little detail. I kept wondering if I had read a section too fast and missed something, and I would go back to check and find that I hadn’t. What a perfect way to create a connection between the reader and the characters. Everyone is desperately searching for Kim, fearing that if they only looked harder or if they only looked smarter that they would find what they looking for.
In preparation for reading Songs of the Missing, the third novel I have read as part of Barnes and Noble’s First Look Book Club, I picked up Last Night at the Lobster after Lisa from Books on the Brain suggested it. I am thankful to have now read both, because I can sense and appreciate O’Nan’s range. Unlike other prolific authors, he does not recycle story lines or continuously use the same hook or edge to write his novels. He is a talented man who clearly challenges himself with his work. I would recommend O’Nan over most modern authors and I look forward to reading many more of his novels.
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