A child's strange disappearing act
Readers might not know exactly what to think of Anne Ursu's new novel, The Disapparation of James. But a feeling of uncertainty shouldn't be cause for concern, since ambiguity is a big part of the appeal of this inventive book.
When the novel opens, Hannah and Justin Woodrow are taking their children to the circus despite Justin's lifelong distaste for clowns, a condition stemming from a creepy childhood experience. Five-year-old son James is plucked from the crowd to participate in the finale, a magic act in which a clown balances the boy high in the air. Then suddenly, wordlessly, from his high perch, James disappears in front of 500 pairs of watching eyes. The circus ends, but the clown can't return James to his increasingly frantic parents. Eventually, they and the police realize James really has vanished.
Ursu sets the stage effectively for this perplexing event. Things had been strangely off-kilter at the Woodrow house the entire day leading up to the circusJustin's favorite spatula vanished that morning, an impossibility in his shipshape kitchen. The usually reticent James had been hyper all morning, shouting "Up! Up! Up!" at the top of his lungs.
Ursu pulls at the same every-parents'-worst-nightmare thread that Jacquelyn Mitchard skillfully tugged in the best-selling novel The Deep End of the Ocean. But a child literally disappearing in front of a crowd of onlookers isn't exactly a standard child-snatching, and Ursu makes her story unique, detailing the wild, stream-of-consciousness thoughts of a family left one member short. She has a knack for toying with reality, stopping time and backing up to play out a different possible outcome. The result is a compelling and compassionate storyeven when readers aren't actually sure where their sympathies should lie.
The author also uses the disappearance to examine the dynamics of an unusual family, in which the father is in charge of car-pooling, play dates and lunch while the mother works full-time as a physician. Hannah's nagging feelings of inadequacy (what kind of Mom goes off to work and leaves Dad to raise the kids? she often wonders) are magnified when she fails to keep her son safe.
Want a detailed account of what happened to James? You won't find it here, and ultimately that question is somewhat beside the point. Ursu eschews the easy option of turning her story into an open-and-shut mystery novel, instead choosing to explore the beauty and inevitable anxiety of parenthood.
Amy Scribner is an editor and writer in Washington, D.C.