“How many versions of Dad are we all missing… A different one for each of us, and not one of them is real.”
In Me, the Missing, and the Dead (UK title: Finding Violet Park), author Jenny Valentine’s narrator is Lucas Swain, a teenager mourning his father’s disappearance. A chance encounter with an urn containing the cremated ashes of a stranger sets off a chain of events that will lead him to question the way he’s lived for the past several years.
The Many Faces of Memory
One of the main themes of the novel is memory, and how we remember people who are no longer with us. Most of the people in Lucas’ life are dealing with loss, and he is thoughtful enough to apply their experiences to his own situation.
Norman, Lucas’ paternal grandfather, has memories of Peter Swain (who wasn’t his biological son in the first place) that swim in and out of focus following a series of strokes. He is sometimes unable to tell whether his everyday companions are alive or figments of his imagination, and his occasional brief flashes of lucidity yield little information for Lucas.
Martha, Lucas’ new girlfriend, has spent years preparing for the death of her cancer-stricken mother. When the inevitable finally takes place, she teaches Lucas that no amount of preparation can dampen the sorrow, and that his having seen signs that his father was going to run off would not have helped.
Lucas’ immediate family members (his mother and two siblings) have accommodated his need to grieve for years, by tolerating his habit of dressing in his father’s old clothes and surrounding himself with Pete Swain’s abandoned objects. His mother holds out for as long as possible before baring her frustration, and his rebellious sister tries to spark an intervention on his behalf. They both want to move on, and feel that Lucas’ nostalgia is keeping the whole family bound in the past.
The only family member free of the pull of absence is Lucas’ younger brother Jed, who was born shortly after Pete Swain disappeared. He alone has no memories, no sense of loss, and because of this he’s able to show Lucas a certain promise of happiness.
Ashes and Dust
At the center of the story is the urn Lucas finds in a cab office. The novel doesn’t play up the supernatural, but merely gives the reader hints of a possible communication between Lucas and the urn’s inhabitant. This is Violet Park, a woman who Lucas assumes is a stranger until he discovers a family connection.
For a character who isn’t really “there,” Violet has a strong presence in the novel. Soon after Lucas rescues her remains from the cab office, images of her past start appearing, and he soon finds himself investigating the life and death of the Tasmanian pianist whose ashes he has hidden in a closet.
Me, the Missing, and the Dead will appeal to older teens looking for a thoughtful book dealing with mature family issues. It’s not action-packed, and the pace often slows to allow Lucas to reflect on his circumstances. However, Lucas is a bright and sympathetic narrator, and readers will easily identify with his feelings of loss and confusion. Highly recommended.
Jenny Valentine. Me, the Missing, and the Dead. New York: HarperCollins,. Jenny Valentine’s personal page.