The Disapparation of James

by Anne Ursu

Published by Theia Books

288 pages, 2003




Little Boys Who Go "Poof!"

Reviewed by David Abrams


Children disappear every day. Some are snatched by dark-hearted men in raincoats. Some fall into rivers and are sucked under by the current. Some slip their grasp from your hand while shopping in K-Mart and melt into the anonymity of crowds.

Few, if any, vanish into thin air, gone in a literal blink of the eye. But in Anne Ursu's second novel, The Disapparation of James, that's exactly what happens to the titular five-year-old boy when he attends a magic show on the eve of his older sister's birthday and he's called up on stage by Mike the Clown. Even when they later watch a video of the fateful magic act, his parents cannot accept what they see:

The clown puts James in the chair. James holds on to the sides. The clown lifts James-in-the-chair up and puts James-in-the-chair on his chin. The clown's arms go out to his sides and he staggers about a bit -- applause starts -- and then, all of a sudden, he bends and sways, there is a gasp, and then…

And then James disappears.

In the room with the long table, Justin and Hannah Woodrow stop -- heart, breath, mind. This is not at all what they thought. This is not even the same world anymore, this is a whole new universe. It's right there, on the video. James has not been kidnapped. James is not lost. James has just gone.


In clear, uncomplicated prose, Ursu maps the evolution of shock, disbelief, grief, torpor and rage that comes in the wake of every parent's worst nightmare. Hannah retreats into the lethargic fuzz of dreams; Justin vows vengeance on the clown he thinks is responsible for the fate of his son; Greta, the seven-year-old sister, determines to bring back James by drawing pictures and making lists of his favorite things, like peanut butter and puppies.

As in her debut novel, Spilling Clarence, Ursu approaches the bad moments in her characters' lives with a fairy-tale twinkle in her eye. Beginning with the title (why "disapparation," why not simply "disappearance"?) the book adopts an elevated, distanced tone with a rhythm all its own -- a sort of Grimm percussion -- until, like a magic trick, you levitate through the pages. Unlike Spilling Clarence, which kept too much distance between reader and page, The Disapparation of James makes us care deeply about its characters, including the compassionate cop who's assigned to the case of the missing kid and the clown who goes from suspect to victim as the story progresses. The point of view constantly shifts between the characters and Ursu never slips a gear in the transitions.

There are times when I wished the sentences had been decorated with a bit more color and texture -- the simplicity of noun-verb, noun-verb gets a bit flat after a couple hundred pages and there are the occasional clichés ("The rules have changed, the sky has opened, the fabric that holds the world together has ripped") -- but the cumulative effect of the novel is a balanced combination of melancholy and joy.

By sprinkling "once upon a time" dust over the narrative, Ursu uses surreal allegory to gently instruct without sermonizing. Her message is clear: parents, love your children, hug them while you can; husbands and wives, savor every good moment together. For tomorrow, we could disappear. | February 2003


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.