“Ways to Disappear” is the first novel of poet Idra Novey, who has two poetry collections and four works of translation to her credit. In this debut, Novey writes elegantly and with slanted humor about beauty, loss, abandonment and surprising acts of self-discovery.
At the outset of the novel, a famous Brazilian author, Beatriz, has gone missing. Her dutiful translator, Emma, leaves snowy Pittsburgh for sizzling Rio de Janeiro to find her. Emma leaves behind a doggedly loyal boyfriend — a jogger tellingly named Miles — and a job as an adjunct teaching Portuguese to Spanish speakers.
Since she left graduate school, Emma has translated five works by the mysterious Beatriz Yagoda. Since Emma is so intimately acquainted with her author’s fiction, she believes she will be best equipped to puzzle out her whereabouts. For example, Beatriz was last sighted smoking a cigar in an almond tree. Does anyone else recall, Emma wonders, that one of Beatriz’s earliest stories featured a warden who disappeared into a tree?
Once in Rio, Emma is greeted by a corpulent loan shark who says Beatriz owes him over half a million dollars due to a gambling debt. He mistakenly believes that as a small press translator, she can come up with the dough.
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Emma seeks out Beatriz’s grown children: the obdurate and plain Raquel and the dizzily handsome and dreamy Marcus. The three embark on a hot pursuit that mimics pulp fiction on its caperish exterior, but literary fiction in its deep center. Plus, it’s funny and dangerous — someone might lose an ear, and someone does.
There is logic in Emma’s belief that she knows “her author” better than the two adult children know their mother. After all, neither has ever finished the books Emma feels are “a whispered, secret history of the world.”
Only after their mother disappears do the siblings delve into her work. Marcus is surprised that his mother wrote so much about adultery. Raquel has dismissed her mother’s books as oblique and whimsical, superfluous, with titles like “Have You Tasted the Butterflies” and “The Warm Green Sound of Your Sleeve.”
On her mother’s computer, the same computer where Beatriz disappeared into an online gambling addiction, her daughter discovers an unfinished manuscript. Reading between the lines of this interrupted work, Raquel discovers the secret to her mother’s elusive nature and also much that she has not understood about her own life.
Of course, Beatriz is not the only one who has disappeared. Emma has vanished from her pedestrian existence in Pittsburgh. She is a translator, used to being on the outside, who moves from the margins to the center of her life. She discovers herself in the heat of Brazil and romance, just like Raquel and Marcus ultimately find themselves through the loss of their mother.
But all this makes the novel sound more somber than it is. With touches of mystery, commentary about the art of translating as well as inventing fiction, prose that reads like poetry as well as snatches of actual poems, and wry inter-chapter definitions, “Ways to Disappear” is a gem.
I can think of no better way to disappear than between the covers of this novel.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Topeka.
“Ways to Disappear,” by Idra Novey (258 pages; Little, Brown; $25)