Book Review: How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann
In this debut novel, Raymond Fleischmann takes readers to remote Alaska where Else seeks the truth about her long lost sister from a man she knows to be a murderer.
1941. It’s been over twenty years since Elisabeth’s twin sister, Jacqueline, vanished. Else, as she’s known to friends and family, has moved on with her life. She lives in the tiny Alaskan village of Tanacross, thousands of miles from her Pennsylvania hometown. She teaches her daughter, supports her husband, and only suffers the occasional ache at her sister’s memory. Until Alfred arrives.
How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann uses its unique, isolated setting and strange histories to build a creepy tale of murder and obsession. Many times it feels like reading a dream – pieces that seem disconnected create a kaleidoscope of unease. The narrative moves from WWII Alaska to post-WWI Pennsylvania. The point of view moves from third person to second. The shifts effectively keep the reader off-balance, wondering: what is real?
Fleischmann plants us steadily enough. The novel begins in an Alaskan summer. The days are long and it’s hard for Else to sleep because it’s so bright. Mosquitoes are a nuisance. There’s mud everywhere. And Else and her husband, John, are generally okay, even though John is away for the moment. Mail delivery is a good time because that’s the only way they get word from anywhere outside town.
So when Else heads down to pick up the mail, she’s not expecting her world to shift dramatically. She’s just looking for a book that her daughter ordered.
Instead, she finds Alfred.
You know those guys who give you a weird vibe? That’s Alfred. A little too intense. A little too focused. Probably hovers in your “personal bubble” too long. Else gets that gut feeling, too.
“I’ve been flying all day and all night. My route and Glaser’s, you see. I’m exhausted, I need to rest, I need a place to stay, Mrs. Pfautz, and I’ve been told that you have a guest room.” He lowered his chin, and his eyes steadied on hers. “So, if you’d be so kind, I’d like to stay with you.”
A place to sleep. It wasn’t an odd request in itself…
But there was something about this man that unsettled her, and there was something strange in the way he had looked at her and spoke to her. He wasn’t inviting himself into her home, and he wasn’t demanding an invitation. He desired it – I’d like to stay with you, he had said – and somehow a desire felt more unnerving than a demand. Elisabeth had no wish to know anything about this man’s desires, and she had no wish to fulfill them.
Nowadays many women would tell him to back off. But this is the 1940s and Else, in her position as the schoolmaster’s wife, is the de facto hostess of the town. So she feels she can’t really refuse Alfred’s request to sleep over.
Then, Else’s gut instinct is proven correct when Alfred murders Mack, a local Native and handyman. The crime is brutal. Mack is beaten bloody. Now Alfred only wants to talk to Else.
And what Alfred has to say is this: he knows things about Jacqueline.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Alfred said. “Telling you what happened to the Indian would be a waste of breath.”
“Call him by his name,” Elisabeth said, and a quiver of rage shot through her. She clenched her teeth. Her toes curled in her shoes. But Alfred paid her no attention, and he continued.
“I brought you here,” he told her, “to talk about one thing, and one thing only.” He fluttered his eyes as if he was waking from a heavy sleep. “I want to talk about her, Elisabeth. You know who I mean.”
In an instant, her heart was pounding. Every muscle in her body tensed.
“Elisabeth – ”
“Stop,” she said. It was all she could muster. But he ignored her.
“We need to start working together,” Alfred said, “and together we can find her.”
“I told you to stop.”
“Jacqueline,” Alfred said. His head hung low. His eyes glowed white. His mouth gaped open. “I know things about Jacqueline.”
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game that jumps back and forth through time. Alfred will tell her about her sister, if Else promises to do three things for him…for each action, he will tell her one piece of information.
After years of not knowing, after years of feeling like she’s missed her other half, Else agrees to this strange transaction.
Bits and pieces come back to her. Else remembers things she hasn’t thought about for decades. Fragments. Mysterious men. Strange money. Her sister’s odd behavior before she vanished. She wants to know what happened.
And Alfred delivers.
How Quickly She Disappears is a strong debut by Raymond Fleischmann, capturing a strong sense of place and a disturbing sensibility. Wandering through the dark dreamscape is unsettling, and you definitely worry about the characters’ sanity.