The Disapparation of James is a relatively simple book. Ready for the plot breakdown? Here it is: Hannah and Justin Woodrow are taking their two kids, Greta and James, to the circus for Greta’s birthday. During the act, James is taken up on stage as a volunteer for Mike the Clown’s act. At the end of the act, James disappears. And then he doesn’t come back. No one knows where he went, not even Mike, and most of the rest of the novel is spent following the family members (Hannah, Justin, and Greta) as they try to deal with the loss of James.
My only complaint about Ursu’s novel, which I’ll air at the beginning so I can just spend the rest of the time talking about why I liked this book, is that the author tends to write in a sort of ruminating style that is great for the trajectory of this book most of the time (which I’ll get to in a second) but can, at times, get a little tedious. There are so few spots where we actually get a whole lot of things happening; instead, we tend to have long, multiple paragraphs of list-like thoughts on the stuff the POV characters are looking at, thinking, or feeling. And this kind of thing works great during points of emotional impact or in her successful attempts to establish a sense of interiority for these people, but it can also get a bit tedious to read.
In some sense, the brilliance of this book is also what makes it difficult to really talk about. Ursu does such a great job taking the story of the lost child and making it so much more personal and intimate than it might be otherwise. Of course, this isn’t to say that stories like this are ever not tragic, but Ursu’s novel was able to create such sad, heartbreaking interiors for these family members that the story became personal in a weird, very satisfying way. And for that reason, it’s been hard to think about whether or not I would recommend this book to other people. The book isn’t an exceptionally wonderful example of narrative construction or nuanced plot weaving, and it certainly doesn’t break ground when it comes to ingenious characters or narrative devices. The climax of the book (or the narrative twist, they’re the same here) is solid but not flashy or particularly fantastic. And really, in those ways, The Disapparation of James manages to stay under your radar for almost the whole reading experience. But the affect of the book, the kind of thing I’m not really used to talking a whole lot about, is just so intelligently managed and molded. Ursu has an emotional scope she wants you to feel and she takes no prisoners along the way. Although the story seems to plod along, the stuff underneath, the boiling, withering, freezing insides of the people who have lost James–that stuff pushes the reader along on a brutal, genuine narrative path, and that’s really the best part of this book. It’s hard to read at points, and in some ways, that just makes it all the better.
At the end of the day, I really liked this book, and I’m happy to give it five out of five slices of emotionally restorative lasagna.