The Disapparation of James / Anne Ursu
New York: Hyperion, c2003.
Five year old James Woodrow is very shy, so nobody is more surprised than his parents when he volunteers to be the assistant at a circus show they've gone to for his sister Greta's 7th birthday. He is taken up on stage, is a resounding success, and then, as the high point of the act, he disappears. Suddenly. Irrevocably.
To his parents' shock, it wasn't part of the trick. As they wait and James doesn't return, the panic sets in, and the family goes through their worst nightmare -- a missing child.
The story delves into the responses of each family member, mother, father and sister, to James' disappearance. It also explores the bounds of what is known and believed: on viewing a tape of the performance, both Justin and Hannah come to view his disappearance not as an abduction but a literal disapparation. He has dissolved into thin air.
There is some support for this speculative idea early on in the book, as James is presented as a very serious, quiet, obsessive kind of child, who will play with his blocks alone for hours, or talk to his sister in their own language. The busy morning before the circus, Justin, while making breakfast, can not find his spatula -- it's as if it has "disappeared into thin air" and this kind of thing seems to happen a lot, a common enough experience for most of us, but slightly ominous here.
In any case, the disappearance alters their lives, as an investigation is underway, and a police officer takes up residence in their home for the duration. Tom is a sympathetic character whose job is to observe the family, take calls, and ward off cranks. He also and most unexpectedly begins to take care of Greta while her parents aren't really functioning. And he meets Hannah's sister, which gives a reader a tiny hint of a future connection.
But there is no way to solve this illogical disapparation. The police can only deal with abduction and the rules of everyday life, they don't understand the random dissolving of a child, the fact of which only the Woodrows seem to grasp. How will it conclude? Ursu doesn't leave us in agony, she resolves the quandary in as sudden an event as the original moment of loss. But meanwhile, she explores the ideas of loss, belonging, family, love, belief, and more. While there were a few moments that I wasn't convinced by, the majority of the story was sharp and concisely drawn. The characters were all complex, with vivid interior lives. Greta was a wonderful character, with an outsize imagination and an absolute belief in James' return.
I really enjoy Ursu's deliberate style. She includes a lot of description of the thoughts and motives of her characters, while positing a very unusual situation. I've also read and enjoyed her novel Spilling Clarence, and find many similarities in the way she approaches a story in both novels. I've owned this particular book for a long time, and I'm glad I finally read it. It was an intriguing read.