This satire of the popular exploitation of macabre crimes works only because Schaffert has such a light touch. His sleight-of-hand storytelling constantly draws our eye to other curious aspects of the plot, little set pieces woven from strands of comedy and woe.
One of the millions of people obsessed with Lenore’s disappearance, for instance, is Wilton Muscatine, the wealthy author of Gothic children’s novels that sound something like Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events.” With eyes that “looked as if freshly bought from an oculist’s cabinet,” he’s a deliciously grim character, mourning the loss of his own daughter and the 8 million trees that have given their lives for his popular books. To repent for this environmental destruction, he insists that his final novel, “The Coffins of Little Hope,” be published on paper handmade from “pulverized coffee chaff and dryer lint and other charming refuse.”
It’s just so hard to know where the sparks of Schaffert’s parody are going to land. Harry Potter fans take cover — Satirextremis! And the strange way in which Muscatine’s books become woven into Lenore’s case makes a chilling statement about our urge to romanticize grief.
But the richest part of the story concerns Essie Myles’s grandchildren and great-grandchild, a small hodgepodge of survivors who manage to live and work together by keeping their resentments and disappointments tempered with affection. As Schaffert moves through this elliptical story, the plot remains mere gossamer, but we gradually learn more about the fractured Myles clan. There’s real pain here and longing, too, sprinkled amid their efforts to form a workable family from the survivors. After all, every child vanishes eventually in one way or another, an inevitability that haunts all parents. “Maybe that was what made us so vulnerable to the mythology of Lenore,” Essie thinks, “the fragility of childhood, and the heartbreak of it.”
That could be a pat, sepia-toned theme, but Schaffert blends his sentimentality with enough melancholy humor to keep this novel alluringly strange to the very last page.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.