Monday, April 6, 2020

How Quickly She Disappears - Raymond Fleischmann

Summary: The Dry meets Silence of the Lambs in this intoxicating tale of literary suspense set in the relentless Alaskan landscape about madness and obsession, loneliness and grief, and the ferocious bonds of family …

It’s 1941 in small-town Alaska and Elisabeth Pfautz is alone. She’s living far from home, struggling through an unhappy marriage, and she spends her days tutoring her precocious young daughter. Elisabeth’s twin sister disappeared without a trace twenty years earlier, and Elisabeth’s life has never recovered. Cryptic visions of her sister haunt her dreams, and Elisabeth’s crushing loneliness grows more intense by the day. But through it all, she clings to one belief: That her sister is still alive, and that they’ll be reunited one day.

And that day may be coming soon. Elisabeth’s world is upended when Alfred Seidel — an enigmatic German bush pilot — arrives in town and murders a local man in cold blood. Sitting in his cell in the wake of his crime, Alfred refuses to speak to anyone except for Elisabeth. He has something to tell her: He knows exactly what happened to her long-missing sister, but he’ll reveal this truth only if Elisabeth fulfills three requests.

Increasingly isolated from her neighbors and imprisoned by the bitter cold and her own obsession, Elisabeth lets herself slip deeper into Alfred’s web. A tenuous friendship forms between them, even as Elisabeth struggles to understand Alfred’s game and what he’s after.

But if it means she’ll get answers, she’s willing to play by his rules. She’s ready to sacrifice whatever it takes to be reunited with her sister, even if it means putting herself — and her family — in mortal danger. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I don’t know about you, but I’ll go on these binges that involve a single thing, and then I’ll indulge in that for awhile. For instance, right now I’m interested in Alaska. I’ve been to Alaska once, and then to Vancouver Island a few times (which is right across the bay), and so I feel like I have a connection to it in a way because I’ve experienced it and was fascinated by different things each time I was there. However, I’ve never really experienced the super-cold, super-isolated, super-frontierishness of it all. I think what first set me off was reading Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. Her writing is always so great, and I think that she does an impeccable job of creating place as part of the story. You can read my review on that book here. Since then, I’ve kind of gone down a rabbit hole of reading and such about Alaska. Although I haven’t really watched all those shows about Alaska on the various networks on TV, I know that there is a lot out there as well—people building out there, people living out there, people exploring out there, etc. Seems like I’m not the only one on an Alaska binge right now!

That being said, How Quickly She Disappears was right up my alley. I love books that make place a character, and Alaska is always so present in every story that it takes place in, that it can’t help but be a part of the book. When your day-to-day living is basically related to how you are preparing to live in Alaska, it can’t help but be present at all times. This is my main complaint of the book, however. Although there was quite a bit of discussion of the cold and the isolation, it wasn’t as much a part of the story as I would have liked it to be. This could have just taken place in rural cold anywhere (Minnesota? North Dakota? Wyoming?). It wouldn’t have really mattered. Float planes were a telling sign, of course, but there was not as much discussion about the pertinence of it actually being Alaska as other novels that I’ve read. At the end there is more discussion about it, but the overall gist was not as strong as I would have liked. I felt that the author was just writing about Alaska, but maybe he hadn’t actually been there. Also, this is a historical fiction novel in that it takes place right before the Second World War, and yet it could have taken place at any time. It felt modern and there was very little to distinguish modern out-in-the-middle-of-the-cold-nowhere as compared to this. Fleischmann probably just wanted to focus on his really fun mystery story, but I am a person who really enjoys place and time and want my story to feel firmly anchored in both of those. This was not the case with this book.

Now for the positives—I really enjoyed the story in this book. It has an unreliable narrator, which adds to the suspense and keeps you on your toes. You never really know what is real and what isn’t, and that adds a layer of mystery and suspense that I find enjoyable. I think my first inclination is to trust a narrator, and I find it a fun twist when you can’t. It did make for some very interesting choices on both the part of the author and the part of the reader. You can’t tell what is actually real and what isn’t and decide who the “bad guy” is and who isn’t. Adding to this is a very layered and complex back story, and there are many characters who are somewhat mysterious and as each chapter goes on and more is revealed, we realize we actually know less and less about what is going on and all the implications of it. I liked that. It was basically a story within a story, which always makes for a very interesting and thought-provoking read.

This is a fast-moving story that isn’t super long, and is definitely something that you could consume quickly in one long airplane trip. It’s not a deep literary classic, but there is definitely a lot to think about at the end. Despite my disappointment about it being Alaska-light, I would love for a follow-up book to this, especially because I think the next part of the mystery left itself wide open to do so! Or even a prequel! If Mr. Fleischmann is reading this, please do that! I’d love to know what happens next. There is so much left to learn about! If you enjoy reading mysteries, especially ones with lots of good back-story and an unreliable narrator that will take you on a crazy ride, this book is for you!

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and some sexual content, though nothing too hardcore or graphic. It is on the milder side of the crime genre.

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