The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos is, for the most part, the story of Lily and how she's been traumatized by the disappearance of her best friend Irene 15 years ago when they were but a couple of young teenagers. The novel begins in the present with Lily committed to bed rest because of a troubled pregnancy.
Lily is surrounded by friends and family members who love her and, to make her bed rest a little easier, they each take turns each night telling her a story. Each of these stories from these various perspectives are the chapters that make up the book, and each of these chapters offer a tiny glimpse into Irene and what happened to her on that terrible day when, supposedly, she drowned in the lake in the heart of a Venezuelan rain forest.
Through the stories, the reader is transported to the tumultuous past, to the time of revolution in Venezuela. History and myth combine to form an intriguing and grim picture of a country in turmoil. Irene, between shadows, emerges as a mysterious, dark and alluring character.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I hate when that happens because this type of review is the hardest to write. As I read this novel, I loved the writing, but often felt so frustrated with the storyline itself that I felt like throwing the book against the wall.
On the one hand, the author's prose, imagery and symbolism are superb. The characters are deftly constructed and the author offers vivid, sharp glimpses into their psyches. The friendship dynamics between Lily and Irene was fascinating to read. The words flow beautifully and effortlessly. On the other hand, I don't feel the meaning of the book was successfully carried across to the reader--or at least to the average reader of normal intelligence. When the reader isn't able to understand what happens in a book, the author has failed on some level. In this case, the culprit seems to be the way the novel was constructed.
To begin with, the premise is misleading. I had one big expectation: that the story would be about the mysterious disappearance of a girl. Yet, as I read each chapter from a different point of view, I felt farther and farther away from this key part of the story. Granted, in each chapter the author offers new information from a new character's perspective which subtly sheds light into what happens to Irene, but somehow this isn't enough to pull the whole thing together. As I read, I felt Irene straying further and further away, and I kept telling myself, "Okay, all this is great, but what's the deal with Irene?" This frustration made me distracted and ultimately didn't let me enjoy the novel. The ending is disappointing because it is confusing. I guess I could always read it again, and again, to try to decipher the mystery, but I don't have the time.
Is this a novel for the average reader to sit back and enjoy? No. Is this a novel for the sophisticated reader who enjoys a good challenge? Yes. I'll tell you one thing: this is one hell of a book for group discussions. If you decide to get a copy, I'll give you a tip: read it carefully and pay attention to every little detail, otherwise you'll reach the end and say, "What the heck happened? What did I miss?"
The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos
By Margaret Mascarenhas
Grand Central Publishing
Paperback, 365 pages, $13.99