Portland writer Sarah Braunstein’s debut novel, “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children,” is an unflinching probe into the frailty of children’s dreams and desires. Even though grown-ups figure prominently, most remain emotionally crippled by childhood wounds.

When one returns to the house he grew up in and is kissed by a woman now living there, she wonders, “What happened in his house? … but of course there was no house that wasn’t its own chamber of horrors.”

Braunstein writes a haunting story, one whose characters remain vividly fixed in memory after the last page is turned. Although there is no sweet relief, there is one great instance of courage; one of genuine love. And there is one of heartbreaking self-sacrifice. But all the rest is sorrow. As one character puts it, speaking to another: “You have the saddest story Sam. … Even sadder than mine.”

The book is brave and daring. The interlocking stories of a dozen or so main characters turn around one unifying central story, that of smart and pretty 12-year-old Leonora. Despite being “warned in school assemblies and by her mother and father” to be wary of strangers, the author tells us directly at the end of the first chapter that “she would disappear.”

Part of the beauty of the storytelling is how Braunstein uses that foreknowledge to tease and intensify the terror – and ultimately to surprise the reader. Through a handful of chapters, we watch as Leonora is slowly seduced against her better judgment into trusting a stranger. Seduction, in one form or another, proves something of a theme common to all the stories. One of the grown-ups is a peeping Tom, and there is the sense as a reader that we are peeking through countless windows into seemingly ordinary houses, repeatedly witnessing the tragedy of seduction and heartbreak.

Braunstein remarked as a panelist during the Festival of the Book at University of Southern Maine in April that she worked on the book for years without knowing how it fit together. Early in the reading, that was my main question too. Only when she spread the manuscript out on her kitchen floor and stepped back was she was able to glean how the pieces worked together.

It is indeed a brave and daring book in subject matter and focus. But it is also so in its realization of craft. In finishing it, I too was finally able to step back and appreciate what she’d accomplished. It is a “horror” story. But it’s also highly original and a superb work of fiction. 

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel “Dream Singer” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.


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