Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sarah Braunstein, _The Sweet Relief of Missing Children_

THE CONNECTION IS a bit remote, but Sarah Braunstein's novel kept reminding me of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, which our book club read quite a few years ago.  In Kingsolver's novel, set in Appalachia, the narrative keeps switching among three different groups of characters; only once you are well into the novel do you have the information you need to understand how the three groups are related. The narrative strategy dovetails nicely with Kingsolver's environmental theme: things are more interconnected than we at first understand, and it takes a lot of time and observation to understand how a whole system works together.

One of the missing children in The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is Paul, bright but eccentric son of an out-of-control mother; as a teenager, he decides his best chance is to run away. In following chapters, we meet a variety of other characters with other thematically parallel child-parent issues but no other apparent connection to Paul--until the right detail drops, and we see how their stories intersect his.  It's a novel with a lot of nice "oh!' moments, comparable to those in Prodigal Summer when an unguessed-at relation pops into focus.

The other crucial missing child is Leonora, whose story occurs on a single day and is interspersed among the chapters about the vagabondage of Paul. We find out in the first of the Leonora chapters that she will be abducted, and she is, on p.275--which is the point at which I had to put the book down for three months.

I don't expect to be recommending this to the book club, because the abduction of Leonora is wrenching, but Braunstein does manage the very difficult feat of finding a moment of illumination in Leonora's final hours that comes into strange alignment with a moment of illumination that occurs to Paul and one that occurs to a stranger (not the abductor) who had talked to Leonora earlier in the day. We glimpse an idea a bit like Kingsolver's, though maybe harder to state, about the ways lives and events, even terrifying events, come together in ways that seem to point at a possibility of meaning.

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