CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
Gillian Chan's YA novel, The Disappearance, combines suspense, mystery and the supernatural and, at the same time, keeps it real with troubled and believable characters.
Scarred inside and out by the murder of his younger brother, Mike nurses his guilt and anger to keep Jon's memory alive. When he meets Jacob in his "last chance" group home, the two become roommates and unlikely friends. Mike is big and strong, and no one pushes him around. Jacob is small and silent, the victim of bullies both at school and at home.
Then one night Mike hears Jacob talking about things he can't know, things about Mike's brother, about what happened the night of Jon's death and Mike's terrible facial disfigurement. Determined to find the truth about who Jacob is and how he knows Mike's deepest secrets, Mike sets out to solve the mystery. The answers he discovers are impossible to accept, but they must be true. To save both Jacob and himself, Mike must not only believe in the supernatural world but also connect to it.
Chan is the author of eight previous books for young adults. Her adept portrayal of contradictory adolescent nature shows insight into the challenge of survival for young people suffering from childhood trauma. The boys at Medlar House are all damaged and haunted — some literally — by ghosts from the past. Mike has refused plastic surgery to repair his horrifying facial scar to punish both himself and his mother. "I worry that if I don't keep hating, don't keep remembering all that Jon could have been it will be like he never existed." It's a logical reaction to the attack he and his brother suffered, but it is also deeply self-destructive. And it does not reflect who he is inside. Though Mike looks like a monster and acts like a bully, he takes on the role of protector for the weaker boys in the home, including Jacob.
Mike defies his stereotype, taking responsibility for his violence, embracing his own intelligence and showing compassion. Some characters, like the brutal Paddy and the follower, Matt, are more predictable as bully and sidekick but Chaz, the social worker, is shown as a refreshing change from the ineffectual adult figure; he is insightful, intelligent and caring.
Chan's plot moves briskly in flashback reveals. At first a familiar problem novel, the book's supernatural twists of communication from beyond the grave and time travel are surprising and almost jarring. Yet the novel works well on several levels. Mike's belief that his brother is communicating from beyond the grave allows him to shed his guilt for not protecting him. The ghost story works both metaphorically and literally and will appeal to adolescent readers with a taste for mystery and magic.
A quick read, The Disappearance is written in accessible, sometimes gritty language, full of realistic dialogue. Mike's voice reflects both the belligerence he needs to survive and the kindness and compassion that are essential to his nature.
For readers looking for a twisted supernatural mystery with engaging characters, The Disappearance is an excellent choice.