In Watch Me Disappear, Brown maneuvers her characters with a conjuror’s sleight of hand: now you see them, now you don’t.
The feat becomes apparent in the magical opening chapters, as Billie, Jonathan, and their teenage daughter, Olive, enjoy a day at the beach. Olive plays barefoot in the surf while Billie--with all of her “loose-limbed freedom”--wonders if she’s seeing a former version of herself. Jonathan thinks about his wife’s tears and smiles and the stretch of days fanning out behind them. Jonathan can still recall the girl he fell in love with
16 years earlier.
Brown’s narrative is laced with an unpredictability as it moves from the loss of a mother to the struggles of a single father to the almost magical visions of a teenager. A year after the trip, Jonathan has assumed full responsibility as lone parent. Billie is presumed dead after disappearing on a backpacking trip to the Pacific Crest Trail:
she never came back down the mountain. No one is sure exactly what happened. In the meantime, there was no body to cling to, nothing to bury or to burn or to cry over. The absence of a body has left Jonathan with an emotional legal and financial mess to unravel. The court has refused to issue a death certificate until Billie’s death is verified by diligent search or enquiry.
For the last year, Olive has been in a constant state of waiting for Billie to walk through the door. Instilled with a vague sense of panic, Olive has also been thinking about
how her mother was such a free spirit who openly defied authority. As she stands in the Claremont Prep School courtyard, she thinks of phantoms and visions.
Her mind keeps settling back in the same place; she becomes positive that her mom is still alive somewhere and is reaching out to let her know.
Brown uses Olive’s visions of Billie as a catalyst to show us the attributes her characters are not yet ready to understand, whether this has to do with Jonathan’s financial struggles or the nightly dreams that cling to the edges of Olive’s mind. In the face of Olive’s increased truculence, Jonathan remains stalwart in his insistence that Billie is dead. Olive, however, requests that he help her provide a way forward and, at least emotionally, protect her from the series of moving legal deadlines and promised checks that Jonathon hopes will arrive in the not-too-distant future. Given the circumstances of Billie’s death, it isn’t completely beyond reason to hope that she’s still alive. For Olive, this conviction that her mother isn’t actually gone only grows deeper when Billie appears asking her daughter: “Why aren’t you still looking for me?”
Jonathan has a great deal of difficulty embracing elasticity and change as far as letting go of Billie. Beyond his attraction to Billie’s best friend, Harmony, who steps in to take over the caretaking that a parent or sister otherwise might, he’s now free to write his memoir. Written mainly for Olive as a tribute to her singular mother, the book
explores how Jonathan’s love was torn apart by tragedy. Brown takes some audacious
stylistic risks, utilizing in poignant tones Jonathan’s first-person voice as he describes his immediate connection to Billie from the first moment on that soggy evening when she burst through the closing doors of the rush hour J-Church streetcar.
Billie floats over the action like a benevolent ghost. To Jonathan, she’s the righteous activist, a passionately opinionated free spirit who clashed with her evangelist parents when they told her she was going to hell. Then there were all the years with her boyfriend, Sidney, a self-confessed eco-terrorist who ended up taking Billie “into some really bad places.” Setting her novel in Berkley, Brown achieves a breezy Californian vibe while never selling out to her sharp metaphorical refrains. That the novel should be so fully persuasive is down to Brown’s recurrent theme: how a person can unaccountably go missing and how her love can remain part of a relationship. While the notion of whether Billie is actually dead or not keeps us turning the pages, the reader
tunes into Olive and Jonathan’s search for clues as they gradually discover the full extent of Billie’s shadow existence, revealed in a series of secrets that twist and turn in unexpected ways.
Similar in tone and style to Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, Watch Me Disappear excels in its evocation of love and parenting and the enigma that is marriage. In one final chapter, Brown prolongs the ending to tie up loose ends.
This “what if” scenario exposes the raw vulnerability of “just disappearing” no one having ever really understood the complex texture of Billie’s aching heart.