Sometimes judging a book by its cover is the right thing to do! When I saw the hand-stitched embroidery effect of the cover of The Disappearances, the needle pulled me right in as it were. And it was no stitch-up. This young adult novel delivered on my anticipation in every way!
Imagine a world in which every 7 years something huge disappears. Reflections, for instance. The stars in the sky. Dreams. Imagine the foreboding at the end of each 7-year cycle, knowing, wondering and fearing the next disappearance. This is the world which greets 16-year old Aila and her younger brother, Miles, when they are sent to live in Sterling with family friends, following the death of their mother, and the drafting of their father to fight into WWII. The town is not only cursed, but unwelcoming and hostile. The people hold Aila’s mother responsible. She had been the only person to leave the town and retain the faculties lost to others. Why? Obviously she was the one to cast the curse, and her children are regarded with suspicion.
Those suspicions may be well-founded. For not only does the next disappearance arrive bang on time, but another follows almost immediately. The disappearances also spread from three towns to a fourth. The arrival of Aila and her brother has strengthened the curse!
This story is full of opportunity to explore typical young adult themes: the loss of one’s parents, being the outsider in a hostile environment, coping with the bullying that ensues. Fortunately Aila and her brother have their protectors: the family that has taken them in, Professor and Mrs Clifton and their handsome son, Will, with whom Aila falls in love. Oh yes, the trials of unrequited first love (remember them?) made so much worse by that unexpected fifth disappearance, which threatens to reveal Aila’s closely guarded secret.
In addition there is the necessity of understanding and unravelling the curse. Aila feels impelled to do this if she is to clear her mother’s name. The stories that the people of Sterling tell do not gell with her memories of her mother. Fortunately, just before leaving home, Aila discovered a notebook, full of her mother’s incomprehensible scribblings. Now that she is in Sterling though, they seem to point to a connection between the disappearances and Shakespeare. Whatever can the bard have to do with these mysterious events?
There was a ring too, which her mother was about to return to a man named Stefen. Who is this man and what was he to her mother? A parallel narrative uncovers the history of this unfortunate, and this is altogether darker and more twisted than anything Aila and her brother experience or can imagine. And in one section, particularly cruel to animals. (At first, this section struck a discordant note, but then, for all its magical elements, The Disappearances, always retains one foot in the real world, and experimentation on animals is – for good or ill – a part of that.) Stefen’s narrative also explains his desperation to get his hands on the ring, and the reason why he is ultimately a threat to Aila and her brother Miles. Yes, he’s the villain, and yet, it is hard to hate him. His story is the dark side of the charmed existence of Aila’s mother, and his bitterness all too easy to understand.
I liked that subtlety is Murphy’s writing – the world isn’t black and white. I loved the magic realism (not usually my thing) fused with the period feel of the 1940’s, and the literary mystery involving Shakespeare, requiring the tenacity of a motivated adolescent in a pre-internet world to solve it. (Aila must read; search engine shortcuts were not an option for her.) The promise of the rich tapestry on the book cover was fulfilled in every detail. But I’ll let Aila summarise – she’s better acquainted with this story than I am.
When just the right things come together, there is always a bit of magic. And when just the wrong combination of things do, there is tragedy.
Expect magic, tragedy and delight if you pick up The Disappearances. There is an extract available here, and, should you wish to read more, Pushkin Press have kindly made three copies available to giveaway to UK readers. To enter, please leave a comment, preferably with the title of your favourite young adult novel, as I’d like to incorporate more of these into my own reading. Winners will be notified on Friday 11th August 2017.