The Disappearances makes you appreciate the small things

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy

BOTTOM LINE: Charming

Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Publication Date: 4 July 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, has always been a mystery: vibrant yet guarded, she keeps her secrets beyond Aila’s reach. When Juliet dies, Aila and her younger brother Miles are sent to live in Sterling, a rural town far from home—and the place where Juliet grew up.

Sterling is a place with mysteries of its own. A place where the experiences that weave life together—scents of flowers and food, reflections from mirrors and lakes, even the ability to dream—vanish every seven years.

No one knows what caused these ‘Disappearances,’ or what will slip away next. But Sterling always suspected that Juliet Quinn was somehow responsible—and Aila must bear the brunt of their blame while she follows the chain of literary clues her mother left behind.

As the next Disappearance nears, Aila begins to unravel the dual mystery of why the Disappearances happen and who her mother truly was. One thing is clear: Sterling isn’t going to hold on to anyone’s secrets for long before it starts giving them up.”

My Thoughts: The Disappearances is an engaging story with an intriguing premise. Watching Juliet maneuver through her new environment and experience the loss of certain abilities makes you notice all of the little things that utilize our five senses daily. It is a reminder to never take for granted our ability to see and hear, smell and touch, yet the story is not just about the loss of certain niceties but about the dangers of secrets and the lasting consequences of keeping secrets can have on a person, a family, and a town.

While I enjoyed the novel, one thing irked me about one of the Disappearances. It is a minor thing but it bothered me so much that it kept taking me out of the story. The townspeople of Sterling lost their ability to smell things and yet they seemingly can still taste everything. In fact, there are several scenes that revolve around meals, and Ms. Murphy makes it seem as if the townspeople compensate for the lack of scent by creating delicious and enticing meals. However, it is common knowledge that smell is one of the primary factors of taste. Anyone who has ever had clogged sinuses can attest to the blandness of food when you can’t smell anything. While this is a small detail that in no way impacts the overall story, it still bothers me because it ignores basic science. Good fantasy novels may play with the laws and theories of science but they do not ignore basic knowledge. Not only that but if Ms. Murphy did acknowledge the impact to taste that the lack of scent has, it would make the Disappearances more serious. It would change the entire dynamic of the story.

I find it interesting that Ms. Murphy chose to set her novel during World War II. As the war is a peripheral event occurring outside of the town, making itself felt only in the absence of Juliet’s father and the length of time between letters, this is a story that really could have occurred at any point in history. Indeed, outside of descriptions of clothes and hairstyles, plus some minor adjustments to speech and manners, Juliet and her fellow classmates have a timeless quality to their actions and thoughts. My theory is that it has to do with the lack of technology; towns could keep secrets like the Disappearances from outsiders because no one had smartphones to document the lack of stars or inability to see reflections. Still, if anyone has a chance to see Ms. Murphy on tour, I would love to ask her what exactly where her reasons for selecting this particular setting and this particular period in time because it seems such an arbitrary choice.

In spite of what it may sound like given what I have written so far, I did thoroughly enjoy The Disappearances. It is easy to like Juliet as she struggles to fit in to her new surroundings. We have all been the new kid at some point in time, and those feelings of isolation and embarrassment never really leave us. On top of that, her longing to understand her mother and keep her alive are not just understandable but palpable. At the same time, it is refreshing to see her relationship with her brother as fraught with frustration mixed with love. They fight often and may be slow to reconcile, but that is a true sibling relationship – something I feel is not as realistically portrayed often enough. In general, I found Juliet to be very real, reminding me of my own teen years and frustrations about fitting in as well as fights with my brother.

The story of the Disappearances is interesting but distracting. The aside chapters involving Stephen are confusing in their rambling nature. While they end of revealing more of the story behind the Disappearances, there is a stream-of-consciousness aspect to these chapters which muddle as much as they clarify. While the search for the source of the Disappearances is a major focus for Juliet, I cannot help but feel that the true story of the novel is Juliet’s hunt for answers about her mother and the growing up she needs to do now that her mother has passed for I got more satisfaction from watching Juliet come into her own than I did watching her solve the mystery.

The Disappearances is not the type of story to garner acclaim or media attention. This makes it no less enjoyable though. Juliet is endearing, and Sterling is charming in its quaintness, although that may have to do with the time period more than the locale. The mystery of the Disappearances and the ways the townspeople have worked to overcome them are intriguing, but it is watching Juliet grow where the story becomes most entertaining. It is the type of novel that will appeal to readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories with a touch of magic.

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