My thanks to Press 53 for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Having read and loved Tara Lynn Masih’s novel My Real Name is Hanna (a piece of historical fiction that I highly recommend), when I saw this collection of short stories on NetGalley, I of course had to read it. How We Disappear is a set of twelve short stories and a novella which are all separate (in fact set in different places with different themes and characters), and yet share the theme of disappearance—each in a different way (of people, of connect, of love, etc). Most have a note of melancholy to them, but most also do leave us with a feeling of hope—sometimes of happiness and better times, at others, simply peace with what is. In fact, letting go or making peace with the past, either to make a fresh start or simply to carry on is a theme that more than one story touches on. Some even take us into dream-like, fantasy territory. The stories take us to various locations from Siberia to contemporary and historical America, Puerto Rico and Belgium. Beautifully written, both the very short and longer ones are impactful.

While I by and large liked all the stories in the volume, some stood out more than others. The opening story, ‘What You Can’t See in the Picture’ was one of these. This is about a woman with extraordinary facial recognition skills (a super recognizer) who works for the police department and is assigned the case of a missing teen who suffers facial blindness. This powerful story explores the emotional connect formed over fleeting moments between rescuer and rescued which will impact them very differently in their respective lives.

‘Delight’ is the story of a young woman who makes confections for a small shop in her beach town in Puerto Rico, but who has suffered loneliness and neglect in her life, partly because of a disfigurement. We follow her through one very special week in her life, as she makes new sweets each morning (the descriptions make one want to eat these), and meets someone who brings a new ray of light into her life. But is this the real thing?

I also very much liked ‘Agatha: A Life in Unauthorised Fragments’ which traces one of my favourite authors, Agatha Christie’s life through small episodes. Starting with the very disconcerting episode in her childhood when someone pinned a live butterfly to her hat, the effect of which only her mother was able to understand, to her love of music, becoming a VAD and learning about poisons, meeting, marriage and separation from Archie Christie to her love for archaeology and marriage with Max Mallowan, this story gives one a journey through the ups and down of Christie’s life, including the days she mysteriously disappeared. Many of these were familiar to me from her autobiography, but I really enjoyed reading this.

‘Bird Man’ was a beautiful and emotional tale of a bond formed between a woman who visits Belgium to find her pilot father’s grave and the woman in Belgium who she finds has been caring for it. While told from the daughter’s perspective, the story explores the thoughts and burdens both women are carrying.

‘In a Sulfate Mist’ is a story of new love, new bonds; a woman in search of love arrives to meet in real life someone she has ‘met’ online, right in the middle of mayfly season. Thinking through her own doubts and what she believes are signs, she must make up her mind, amid the added complications of the mayflies.

‘If You Had Stopped’ is a very short but heartbreaking story of a woman who sells fresh fish, and the adversities of her everyday life and circumstances which become part of her and her wares. How many such do we pass by each day, and how little we know what they are facing.

‘Notes to the World’ takes us to the Siberian Taiga where a bond of different sort forms between a sable hunter and a woman in whose cabin he takes shelter; only that the cabin itself is empty and he gets to ‘know’ her through some notes she has written and left for someone to find. This story sort of put me in the mind of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden at one level touching those same themes.

Finally, the novella ‘An Aura Surrounds the Night’ tells the story of two sisters Mercy and Melody, exploring the relationship the two share, family dynamics, and also the theme of loss and how memory (in fact happy memories) is all we have and really need to rely on to cope, to carry on.  

All the stories in the volume feature characters one feels for, even empathises with; emotions, bonds, connect are explored between the characters and the people and places they care for, but these are also what the reader feels and develops for them.

A wonderful collection, but one I’d recommend reading spread out perhaps because most of these do tend to go into heavier, emotional territory.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Disappear: novella and stories by Tara Lynn Masih

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