The Disappearances is a magical-realism, historical novel rich in character and story. The novel primarily follows Aila, whose life has been uprooted following the death of her mother and the deployment of her father. At some point I had forgotten that this was also a historical novel, so that gave it a nice unexpected flavor when I first started reading it. The Disappearances is about a set of three towns that have been struck by strange Disappearances that no one can explain. With a focus on Sterling, the town that Aila’s mother grew up in, The Disappearances probes the events of the past: possible Catalysts, what has disappeared, and how they’ve unlocked some of the secrets of Sterling. When Aila and her brother arrive it’s like the past has come to Sterling; Aila’s remarkable likeness to her mother, Juliet, the only person who escaped Sterling, sets the townspeople on edge. With the next Disappearance coming up, Aila strives to clear her family’s name by discovering where the Disappearances came from. But there are those who may not want the Disappearances to stop.
“We call them the Disappearances.”*
Disappearances. Catalysts. A mystery that has affected Sterling since 1907, with something new disappearing every seven years. It’s something small, something mundane that you don’t think about until it’s gone: the smell of baking bread and flowers, your reflection in mirrors or lakes, the stars. It’s only when it’s gone that you realize what you’ve lost. With the Disappearances affecting everyone for most of their lives or since birth, living with them has become the norm. The townspeople have adopted rules regarding outsiders and the Disappearances, so when Aila and her brother come to live in Sterling with an old friend of their mother’s and her family, it causes problems within a community where tensions are already high. Their mother is called a Catalyst, a witch, and other things, and it falls to Aila and her brother to deal with the accusations of the townspeople. Aila knows that the only way to clear her mother’s name is to discover the truth about the Disappearances.
Although The Disappearances is a historical novel, World War II is mentioned only sporadically. It reminds me a lot of how parents in England sent their children to the country in order to protect them, the way that the Pevensie children are in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The only problem I had was that Aila and the rest of Sterling are kind of in a bubble. I wish that the world had been cemented a bit more in that time by having members of the community affected more by the war. Most of the story is focused on the Disappearances, but I would have liked to see more about the war. They didn’t seem to want for much, which was a little strange to me considering that there was rationing during the war. What I did appreciate, however, was that Murphy had her characters acting the way they should for the time. There weren’t any odd, modern phrases that didn’t fit. There were a variety of the “high school characters” included, but there were still lines that were not crossed in order to make it more accessible to modern readers. I liked that it remained quaint in a good way.
‘But really, aren’t there bits of magic everywhere we look? We’ve just stopped seeing it that way.’*
The characters were wonderful. Aila is our protagonist, but there’s also Will, the boy next door (although they’re sharing the same house); Eliza, the town darling; Beas, the talented musician; George, the budding scientist; and, of course, the rest of the Clifftons and townsfolk that round out Sterling. I found Aila to be inquisitive and an interesting character to follow around. I loved that she was spunky–she juggled a new town, school, and loyalties all while trying to solve the mystery of the Disappearances. Her friendship with Will, Beas, George–and even Eliza–was so well done. I really enjoyed reading about how she became stronger friends with them as they were following the clues about the Disappearances.
The romance in The Disappearances was another subtle way that Murphy illustrated both characters and setting. I absolutely adored how the friendships and relationships grew in small ways throughout the novel. It never became the focus of the novel, nor did it overtake the plot. The romance was a lovely way to have one more thing in the novel that kept you reading in order to discover how things would turn out for the characters. I thought it was extremely well done.
The Disappearances also had a lovely little connection to Shakespeare. I loved the occasional quote thrown in when they were trying to figure out if the Disappearances had a literary connection. Shakespeare wasn’t the only author or poet mentioned–there was some Browning and Keats as well. I always love when books reference other authors and their work. It makes it more interesting for me as a reader. When Aila goes through the Cliffton’s library with her friends to try to discover clues that may be hidden there, it slowly unravels the mystery and reveals connections that initially seemed unconnected. The way that things are revealed allows the story and the characters to grow and learn. I loved it.
‘We’ll never be able to set it right unless we know which Catalyst was the true one.’*
The Disappearances was an incredibly enjoyable novel. I loved the references to Shakespeare, the magical-realism, and ultimately the way that the story was put together. Although it had a slow start, I was disappointed when it ended. Highly recommend this for readers who like the magical-realism genre, or even if you don’t!
I received a copy of The Disappearances from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
*Quotes are taken from an advance reading copy and may have had changes before publication.