Most of us are familiar with the ancient Vedic fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom touches a different part of the elephant and describes the elephants as being like a rope, a tree, or fan, depending on their perspective. When Billie, Jonathan’s wife and Olive’s mother, disappears and is presumed dead, they learn that she was much like that fabled elephant–a very different person depending on where you stand when looking at her. In Janelle Brown’s Watch Me Disappear, the idea that we never know anyone fully, our understanding shaped by our needs and desires, is explored by this husband and daughter who come to believe that perhaps Billie is still alive.
Billie disappeared while hiking alone. After a long search, her body has not been found though one boot was. Nonetheless, there is certainty she could not have survived. Jonathan is writing a memoir about his marriage to Billie after his eulogy at her funeral went viral. This gives him the opportunity to quit the job that consumed his life and put pressure on their marriage. Olive is experiencing what she believes are psychic communications from her mother asking her to look for her. The hearing that will declare Billie officially dead is looming and they are conflicted. Jonathan knows they need the money to keep afloat and Olive does not want to give up hope. Certain inconsistencies arise that leads Jonathan to think Olive may be right.
There are many secrets in Billie’s past, though none of them seem, in the end, a justification for abandoning her husband and daughter. In fact, there is a bit of much ado about not-so-much when we get down to it. If Billie disappeared, it’s because she did not have faith in those who loved her and did not trust their love to accommodate her secrets. I think it would be devastating to learn your mother or spouse did not believe your love was strong enough to accept a more complicated history. After all, if someone disappears on purpose, there has to be a reason…and so they search for reasons. Olive is not nearly so conflicted as Jonathan who cannot conceive of any reason for Billie to disappear unless she fell in love with someone else, a painful idea to contemplate.
Watch Me Disappear is an engaging mystery in many ways. The slow discovery of Billie’s secrets is well done and credible with one caveat. Given that Jonathan was a journalist for a tech magazine, he does seem strangely unaware of the possibilities of online investigation and has to rely on others to explain to him. That seems a bit strange and does not speak well for his professional competence, but it does make a more interesting story than a guy in front of a screen searching online databases. Brown does an excellent job of pacing the revelations. She also creates interesting characters, not just Jonathan and Olive, but Billie’s best friend Harmony, Olive’s friend Natalie are also interesting and complex characters.
Brown does push one of my personal buttons, referring to one of the characters as an ecoterrorist. Sabotage and vandalism are not terrorism. Somehow we cannot call white supremacists who slaughter people of color terrorists, even when they kill nine people in a church or attack three people on light-rail, but thoughtlessly call people who sabotage and vandalize property terrorists. This is a socio-political hypocrisy that Brown is not responsible for, but I am always disappointed when people whose work is all about words use them without thinking.
This is an interesting story and most of the time Brown avoids telling us what to think and how to feel. However, sometimes there is just too much self-awareness in our character’s thoughts. For example, Olive thinks how being psychic would make her special. That’s the kind of thing people may think subconsciously, but it sounds silly as conscious thought. At the end, too, Olive seems to be handing us the moral of the story, just like at the end of a fable. It made me roll my eyes. However, these are minor flaws in a well-paced and intriguing story.
Watch Me Disappear will be released July 11th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.