Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein

One of the blurbs on this book's dust jacket says that the multiple characters created by author Braunstein "come together like pieces of broken glass from an object that can never be reconstructed." That lovely bit of description seems to suggest a book about broken lives touching each other tangentially in a way that has some beauty, albeit a fractured beauty. Well...there are certainly many broken lives--and numerous missing children--in the book, and to some extent their lives do touch, though not in a way that seems particularly meaningful. Unfortunately, there is no beauty to be found.

The book's first chapter introduces us to Leonora, a young girl we are told will disappear. Braunstein then introduces legions of other characters, and we wonder what their significance is in the story of Leonora. But the opening chapter about Leonora is in many ways a distraction. Although Leonora reappears periodically and she does, in fact, disappear, the book isn't really about Leonora. It's about children disappearing physically--more often by running or simply wandering away than by being snatched--but it's also about children who disappear emotionally, by getting pregnant too young, marrying the wrong person, and losing faith in their dreams.

The book's structure is disjointed, moving from character to character and across decades with no discernible pattern. Some characters assume importance for one or two chapters and are never heard from again, while others thread their way through the book. All, we can be confident, are disappointed in life, distanced from those closest to them, and afraid or shamed. While certain events and scenes are painted in excruciating detail, other large questions raised in the story are left unanswered. Together, the stories seem to tell us that life is meaningless, hope is an illusion, and shame and fear are the most salient emotions.

Does Sarah Braunstein illuminate the human condition or express herself in a way that compensates for reading 360 profoundly depressing pages? Sadly, for me she does not.

Favorite passage:
Age certainly doesn't predict self-knowledge, but it usually predicts some awareness of lack of self-knowledge.
(This is a clever sentence--but I think it is utterly untrue; perhaps choosing it as a favorite passage is emblematic of how I feel about this book.)

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