The Disappearance by RPCV Efrem Sigel came out several months ago from The Permanent Press, a company that had published a number of fine Peace Corps books. It is reviewed here by Leita Kaldi Davis who worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years before she became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal.

disappearance1The Disappearance
by Efrem Sigel (Ivory Coast 1965–67)
Permanent Press
February 2009
264 pages
$28.00

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

Joshua and Nathalie Sandler’s 14-year old son, Daniel, disappears one day from their summer home in a quiet New England town where Joshua is involved in the development of an upscale resort that earns him enemies among local citizens who view them as New York outsiders.  Anonymous threats result in the poisoning of Joshua’s partner’s dog and Joshua, sensing the town’s secrets and mysteries, suspects that his son’s disappearance might be a similar sinister warning.  What he does not suspect is that Dan’s teen-age friends could be just as malicious and misguided as their parents.

Tension builds as weeks then months pass without a clue to Dan’s fate.  Joshua and Nathalie “…are both nearly bowed over from the weight of remembering, a weight that seems to grow rather than lessen day by day”   Joshua becomes obsessive, relentlessly searching for his son.  With frantic energy he tutors inner-city kids, pursues his business, runs, plays basketball and becomes involved in a meaningless sexual affair.  His determination to find Dan, however, remains so intense that the reader tends to believe that, against all odds, Dan is not dead. This faith is nurtured by sentimental memories of Dan that play out in each parent’s mind.

Nathalie becomes almost comatose through the ordeal.  A cellist with the New York Philharmonic, she subconsciously tries to punish God by refusing to play, forsaking her musical gift, until one catalytic day she finds solace at last in music and seems to slough off her grief.

Ten months of anguish end anticlimactically when a neighbor directs Joshua to a grove where Dan’s remains are found.  Finally, the pursuit narrows to a few of Dan’s friends, one of whom at last confesses that he buried the boy after he had hit his head on a rock and died accidentally.  But the arresting police officer verbalizes an underlying motivation for murder that is hinted at more than once in this story:  “Because he was a rich New York kid who was going to have everything in life and you weren’t.”

Joshua and Nathalie eventually transcend their trauma with a new baby and the realization that one must always “run toward the light” even though you may never arrive.

Extensive, often rambling details of the small town reminded me of John Updike’s wordy maps, but place here, particularly the countryside, is like a character, alive with its own complexities, “…as if lit from within on a bright day, or gray, sodden, dull and hopeless under the drip drip of a cold autumn rain.”

Though Sigel has published several books of nonfiction and short stories, his basic writing skills including dialogue, timing and tense need honing beyond what editors these days offer.  While he tells a poignant story, its theme of a child’s disappearance has been explored in other recent books and films and I did not find Sigel’s version to be particularly compelling.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations in New York and UNESCO in Paris, for international development programs at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University.  She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became  a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years.  She retired in Florida in 2002.