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'The Strength of the Sun': Connecting Two Disappearances


A pocket magnifying glass, a mummified falcon from Egypt, a hand-scissored paper silhouette. Several used tennis rackets, an antique blanket chest, an old book of didactic tales for children. If novels were attics, ''The Strength of the Sun'' would be a small but overstuffed one, the sort of place you could spend hours browsing in.


But there's no superfluous junk moldering under the eaves of Catherine Chidgey's fascinating second novel. Every one of the objects she has gathered plays a role in her intricate narrative plan, mediating between past and present, between persons lost and persons left behind. A miscellaneous collection it may be, but in the assured hands of this New Zealand writer (whose first novel, ''In a Fishbone Church,'' won a Commonwealth Writer's Prize), it manages to suggest an entire world.

Chidgey begins with two widely separated incidents occurring on the same day in 1988. In northern New Zealand, a 15-year-old girl named Laura Pearse sets out alone in her rusted Mini to watch a solar eclipse from a nearby hillside. She never returns home. Meanwhile, after watching the same eclipse on television in England, Patrick Mercer, a curator of rare manuscripts, decides to leave the wife he has clearly tired of. While both of these incidents are disappearing acts of a sort -- the one mysterious and unusual, the other ordinary to the point of banality -- they seem to have little else in common. But there are subtle, serpentine connections between them, and the tracing of those connections is the substance of Chidgey's novel.

The first link in the chain of association doesn't emerge until 11 years after the eclipse, when Colette Hawkins, a young woman living in New Zealand, starts receiving form letters from a group in England called the Friends of Patrick Mercer. Patrick, it seems, has fallen into a coma after a serious car accident. His ''friends,'' finding Colette's name in his address book, have taken it upon themselves to send her updates on his condition and solicit letters that can be read aloud to Patrick in the hospital. It's not an unreasonable request, and Colette would be more than willing to oblige, except for one small problem -- she has no recollection of ever meeting an Englishman named Patrick Mercer.

The form letters, moreover, begin to arrive just as Colette is leaving her insufferable mother (escape is a persistent theme in the novel) to go to college in another part of the country. Distracted by her move but intrigued by this unknown Englishman, she arranges to have future letters forwarded to her, then sets off for a new life away from home. As her first act of independence, she finds a room to rent -- in a house that just happens to be owned by Malcolm and Ruth Pearse, the parents of the girl who disappeared 11 years earlier.

To summarize any more of the plot of ''The Strength of the Sun'' would do the book an injustice. Chidgey's story doesn't proceed along the inexorable dramatic line of traditional missing-person novels. And while the book does have its share of suspense (the paired mysteries of Laura's disappearance and the unexplained letters provide plenty of narrative tension), Chidgey's concerns go beyond the simple unraveling of plot convolutions. Instead, she seems most interested in exploring the whole notion of connectedness, the ways in which our words and possessions serve as links between us, makeshift lifelines in a reality where human attachments are constantly eroded by the forces of loss and misunderstanding, by the passage of time.

Objects and documents are never just stage props in this novel. They function more like forensic evidence, markers left behind by the dead, the lost or the emotionally absent as proof of their existence. These markers might be as mundane as the everyday items belonging to a missing girl: ''Laura had left traces of herself, things useless to all intents and purposes, and of no interest to the police or to the careful searchers. She'd left her tennis rackets, her hair clips, her little bottles of nail polish stored in the fridge to keep them liquid. She'd left earrings, school blouses, half a bag of toffees, three rented movies.'' Those movies aren't returned by Laura's mother until they are long overdue, and for a good reason: Ruth Pearse ''hadn't forgotten about the tapes. On the contrary, she'd kept them stacked on top of the television, in full view, for when Laura returned home and flopped into her armchair and aimed the remote control.''

But the novel abounds with other, more calculated mementos: Patrick's most valued possession, for instance, is an 800-year-old instruction manual outlining the mechanics of manuscript illumination -- one 12th-century monk's attempt to provide a lasting monument to his craft. Patrick's distant and unsympathetic father leaves behind an assortment of unopened Meccano construction kits; the toys are his idea of a savvy financial investment (they appreciate in value when left sealed in their boxes) but also a perfect symbol of the enormous missed opportunity that was his life. And in one of the novel's more elegant twists, Patrick's mother defiantly reshapes this legacy into one of her own: after her death, Patrick finds in her toolshed a colossal sailing ship model constructed from parts of her dead husband's now-opened Meccano sets, a posthumous expression of solidarity with the son she could never defend while her husband was alive.

It's difficult to articulate exactly what gives this novel its unassuming power. Chidgey's characters aren't particularly vivid, often failing to rise above their own dogged conventionality. And the plot, while adeptly constructed, offers surprises that are more quietly satisfying than earthshaking. Instead, it's the author's shrewd manipulation of imagery that seems to make the novel work.

As in a piece of music, motifs keep resurfacing, slightly transformed each time (like the sun of the book's title, whose rays appear at different points either eclipsed by the moon or else intensified by the lens of a magnifying glass, and to disastrous effect in both cases). In combination, the disparate elements of Chidgey's novel create a dense and multifaceted whole, an arresting portrait of a world where the past never disappears entirely, but keeps returning to us -- however imperfectly -- in countless small and unexpected ways.

Gary Krist's new novel, ''Extravagance,'' will be published later this year.

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By Catherine Chidgey.
270 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $23.

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