Review: Songs for the Missing

I finally read Stewart O´Nan´s Songs for the Missing, which sat on my nightstand for some time because I wanted to read it when I was in the right mood. It seems ridiculous to declare an author a favorite before having read the complete works, but I think that sometimes you just know after one book. For me this happened when I read O´Nan´s A Prayer for the Dying, and reading Songs for the Missing just confirmed it. Has that happened to any of you, or do you make sure and read all the works available by the author?

The plot of Songs for the Missing is quickly summarized. 18 year old Kim Larsen vanishes from her small midwestern town one summer day, and the novel chronicles the search for her as well as the way in which her parents, sister, and friends deal with her disappearance. Although it may seem like a mystery, it´s not one at all. While the disappearance of Kim is at the heart of the story, the novel is not concerned with leaving well-timed clues about her fate or even closing her case satisfactorily. I´m emphasizing this to warn off anyone who startes to read this with expectations of a suspenseful mystery. Songs for the Missing is foremost about how those closest to Kim cope with her loss, with the uncertainty of what happened to her.

The novel is told in the third person from several perspectives which change with each chapter. In the beginning Kim herself narrates her `last day´ and the reader gets a feel of her and can thus more easily emphathize with the loss felt by her family and friends. The way in which her family mourns her is wonderfully described by O´Nan, the way in which they are torn between hope and grief alsways felt very true to me and never over-the-top.

The search for Kim is hindered by a slow police investigation and involves endless fruitless searches by Kim´s father and volunteers. There is no suspense but always bitter disappointment which drains Ed Larsen´s energy. Kim´s mother, Fran, on the other hand throws herself into organizing fundraisers, setting up websites and a hotline with desperate determination. Their approaches could not be more different, but they are both worried about how Kim´s sister Lindsay deals the loss of her older sister, she holes up in her room and keeping to herself. All the characters are written as very ordinary and real people, and this is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this book.

The storyline spans about three years and so the reader can observe the changes the characters go through, how their lives are altered by Kim´s disappearance. So if you´re looking for a quiet and compelling character study go get Songs for the Missing.

This novel is also beautifully written, here are some of my favorite passages:

It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow.” (1)

“She wanted to stop and close the folder, turn off the computer, afraid that once she sent Kim into that other world, she´d never get her back.” (43)

For all of their best wishes, in the end her mother would be left alone. When everyone else had stopped, she would still be thinking of Kim, and searching for her, and hoping, because she had no choice. She was different now, seperate from them, and always would be.” (119)

The relief she felt was total, and though she knew that the body was someone else´s daughter, and this reprieve was only temporary, for now she was grateful.” (183)

He could no longer be that Ed Larsen, but, through a lack of imagination or just sheer exhaustion, he couldn´t come up with a new one, and faked his way through the days like a bad actor, hardly believing himself.” (185)

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18 thoughts on “Review: Songs for the Missing

  1. Interesting story and nice review! It has happened to me too – reading one book of a writer and then deciding that the writer is one of my favourites 🙂 I can think of Kazuo Ishiguro (I have read just one book of his), Vikram Seth (I have read just two books of his) and Ed Smith (I loved his second book, which I read first, and then later went on to read all his three books). Then, there are those one-book wonders that one can’t help liking 🙂

    1. The same thing happened to me with Ishiguro, I completely fell for his writing when I read Never Let Me Go 🙂 I´ve never heard of Ed Smith, will have to look him up (blogging is really helping close educational gaps!).

      1. Well, I couldn’t resist mentioning Ed Smith, but he is really one of my favourite writers. But he writes mostly on sport. His first book ‘Playing Hardball’ is a comparison between cricket and baseball. His second book ‘On and Off the Field’ is his memoir of a year playing cricket. His third book ‘What Sport tells us about Life’ is a collection of essays about sport and life and is quite fascinating and is probably his best work till now. I don’t know whether you like reading books on sport, and so I am sorry for boring you with all this 🙂

        1. Hehe, no wonder I haven´t heard of him before 🙂 I don´t read much on sports, but perhaps it´s a genre I should dip into. And you´re not boring me! It´s great to learn about other genres and writers!

  2. This sounds like a good book, I haven’t heard of it before. I think if you enjoy one book by an author so much you can call them your favourite author. 🙂

    1. Apparently he is one of the most prolific and successful American writers, I can see why though it´s certainly not through advertising 😉

  3. I agree – sometimes you know with just one book. I really like the passages you shared. And plus I like quiet books and character studies, so I suspect I’d also like this book a lot.

  4. I haven’t heard of this author either – I like the fact that the novel is focused on the people “left behind”. I’m going to try this one out!

  5. I’ve never actually heard of this author or book, I will have to investigate. I do agree though that you can become hooked on an author after having read only one of their books. An author thats done that to me recently is Shirley Jackson after having read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I am now on a hunt for all her other works to read.

    1. I didn´t know his works either until I got to read A Prayer for the Dying in a class last year, but apparently he is an important and prolific American author 🙂
      Oh yes, I agree, Shirley Jackson needs just one book to convince readers! I´d love to get my hands on a copy of her Masterspieces! So far I´ve only seen it on amazon, bookstores should really stock her works.

  6. I know what you mean. Once I read Lolita, I was a Nabokov fan for life (even though I’ve only read one other book by him… I’ve got a lot of reading to do).

    This novel sounds very compelling. It sounds a little like The Lovely Bones, but less about the mystery and more about the human sorrow behind a traumatic experience such as the one you’ve described.

    -Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop

    1. Thanks for stopping by my blog! 🙂 True, Lolita is addicting, I need to read more books by him. I´ve got “Speak, Memory” somewhere.
      Songs for the Missing does have a similar feel as Lovely Bones to it, no narrative from beyong though 😉 Hope you´ll give it a try.

  7. I have this one but haven’t read it. I read Prayer for the Dying and loved it, so I bought this, Wish You Were Here, Snow Angels and one other one and then promptly didn’t read any of them.

    (They made Snow Angels into a movie, but I haven’t seen it.)

    1. That´s so great, I haven´t heard of anyone who has read and loved A Prayer for the Dying 🙂 Hope you´ll give this one a try as well.

      I need to read more works by him (favorite author and all that) but I´m afraid to run out at one pojnt or `overdosing´.

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