Review: When We Disappear

by Lise Haines (Unbridled Books, 2018)

I fell into this suspenseful literary novel. Haines excavates a family: loyalties, betrayals, loves, losses. The prose sings with exquisite, cinematic images. Chapters alternate points-of-view between Mona, 19 and her estranged father, Richard. Mona grows up fast, shouldering responsibilities to support her mom as well as to insulate her little sister, Lola, from the reality of their father’s lapses.

Mona’s passion is darkroom photography. She dwells in dark edges, cropped or blurred images, tricks of light. Mona uses photography as emotional release, and also as a way to move forward in her life. She’s a compelling, confused, and creatively empowered, exploring life and sex with two extremely different boyfriends. Sometimes Mona steals, yet she can't steal back the awful night she witnessed her father's crime, nor the 9 years lost to unresolved emotional trauma.

Richard is a fascinating antagonist. The chapters featuring his point of view reveal layers of denial and regrets and love that build to a heartbreaking and redemptive conclusion. His inability to face up to facts causes the family to lose their furniture, home, and more. When Richard reappears after a long absence, Mona is determined to keep him from ruining their lives once again. Stolen cookies, too-loud television, too-little-too-late in terms of being a good dad. In fact, he's hiding a crime; his guilt and shame are slowly devouring his family.

Mona’s mom is a career artist who shoulders multiple, menial jobs to support her daughters.  She’s self-reliant and treads a delicate emotional edge throughout the novel. Complex and delicate family bonds resonate way beyond the wonderful Chicago setting. When We Disappear begs for a sequel, further adventures of Mona, Ajay, and Lola.

Highly recommended for book groups and those who appreciate literary fiction at its finest.

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Karen Lewis