Review: The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children
By Sarah Braunstein
352 Pages
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
(February 28, 2011)

Some might call Braunstein voyeuristic in her treatment of this, her first novel, due out in February. As the title suggests, the focus is on missing children, but not solely in the Amber-alert sense of the word. Braunstein expands on the psychological concept of being missing or going missed and introduces the reader to a plethora of characters (a group so large it can sometimes be hard to keep track of, especially once some of them change their names), some of whom have gone missing in the literal sense (abducted, miscarried, run-away, or killed), and some of whom have simply (or not so simply) grown up too soon. 

The novel shifts back and forth between three approximate generations, across several different families, but the stories fit together like a jigsaw puzzle of the Scottish Highlands: individual pieces, belonging in separate quadrants, but with green colors and textures so similar that they seem interchangeable, echoes of one another.

The author's compassion for these characters, many of whom are not very likable, is unfailing - she refuses to condemn any one of them for their errors, for their abuses, for their fears or for their misjudgments. As one character claims, "people do the sickest, weirdest things. Anything to lay claim to whatever feeling you fear the most...all the evidence points to it." Instead, she takes them into her arms and forgives - encouraging empathy in the reader. (The one exception to this rule seems to be Paul's stepfather but, as he remains nameless and only exists in Paul's memories, we are meant to understand that he is in essence not one of Braunstein's characters.) She uses the parental characters of the novel as a mirror for this. Some are more sympathetic than others, but in the end all of them forgive their children as stipulated in the first half of the book: "They were going to forgive her. It was decided. It had always been decided, even before the girl ran, even before she was born. You forgive your child. You are always forgiving them, always, every moment, every breath. It's the work of parenthood." 

There is certainly a sense of voyeurism in the framing of the novel. Braunstein even provides an actual peeping tom character to illustrate the idea of looking in on someone else's life. But that voyeurism is also a kind of prescription for introspection. It's not really accusatory so much as an observation on the author's part: we were all children once, we've all had a feeling of being lost or being "missing" at some point (don't all teenagers feel that at some point or another?), and no matter what our fear is, or what we are running from, we all fear and we all run and we all go missing at some point in our lives, literally or no. And it is in that running, and in the subsequent reinvention, that we find the our true selves, our eventual sweet relief. It's a strong statement coming from a new and fairly young author, but that hardly makes it any less true.


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