An essay from Kathleen Donohoe on her new novel Ghosts of the Missing, which is published today by Mariner Books and available wherever books are sold.
It’s dark at midnight on Inis Mór. Stepping out of the pub was akin to being blindfolded. If not for the sea air moving through the trees, the landscape would have been indistinguishable from the sky, black with clouds.
Daniel—I think that was his name—walked with assurance. But as he’d told me when we met, three hours earlier, he’d grown up here, on the largest of the three Aran Islands off the coast of Galway. Inis Mór, anglicized Inishmore, literally means big island. I’m from Brooklyn, New York where, any hour that you try, you’ll be sure to see your hand in front of your face.
That morning, I’d traveled by ferry to Inis Mór with two friends. One had stayed in and other had left the pub with Daniel’s friend. Once we understood that they weren’t coming back, Daniel offered to walk me to my B&B. I gave the name and said, worried, that I wasn’t sure if I could find it. Daniel laughed. He knew every bit of the island.
Between the absence of light and the air, so cool for August, I felt as though I’d stepped into another season in an earlier century. Maybe it was not 2000 but 1900. As we walked, though, I began to discern shades of gray, enough to see the curve of the road, which we did not take, opting instead for a shortcut across a field.
I’m not sure if I heard a noise, or if I wanted a glimpse of the disappearing windows of the pub, but I turned around. There was a body hanging from a tree. White, not opaque but solid, it had just enough luster for me to distinguish its shape. Shoulders, a head to the side and a rope that went from the neck to the branch above. I blinked, shook my head, saw it still. After a few more steps, I checked again, expecting that the shape would now be a rock formation, white with flowers. But my vision didn’t correct itself. The body didn’t shape-shift. I clutched Daniel’s arm, and nearly asked him if he saw it too, but I was afraid that he would say that he did, of course, and then tell me the man’s name and when he’d died.
I’ve never told anyone this, partly because if you begin a ghost story by insisting that you were drinking but not drunk, it’s all over by the end of the sentence. Even if you add that it was only Guinness, and Guinness is not strong and very filling. Really, a pint is a light lunch.
But mostly, it’s because to tell before writing is to narrate away the magic. Not always, but often. And I knew I’d eventually write about it, though I assumed I’d deliberately shape a story around what I saw, or thought I saw.
Fourteen years later, my debut novel was being considered for publication by an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She asked what else I was working on. I hadn’t settled on a new novel, though I’d been hopscotching. An entire first chapter of one. Several pages of another. A lot of scattered notes. My agent asked me to write a brief synopsis of my next novel to send to the editor. At work, in between phone calls, I wrote two sentences. A twelve-year-old girl disappears from an upstate New York town. Years later, her best friend begins to piece together what happened. I signed a two-book deal for my debut novel and the second one, then seven page and two sentences long, which would come to be called Ghosts of the Missing.
In the book, Adair, the best friend believes she saw Rowan early in the afternoon the day she vanished, but the police come to theorize she was already dead by then. Adair is told that she could not have seen her.
As an adult, Adair ‘mis-sees’ things. A priest in a cassock walking towards her draws nearer and is actually a woman in a black coat. A couple walking with a child between them are only passing by each other. She is an artist, but one who can’t trust her own eyes.
The night on Inis Mór was the impetus for this, and not, as I thought when I first wrote it, from the day I went up to the wrong baby in daycare when I did not have my glasses on, or from the knowledge that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. At one point, I decided this “turning one thing into another,” was extraneous and I cut the scene only to put it back in because I sensed it was significant, even if I didn’t know why. It took several more drafts before I understood that the novel was not just about the after effects of a long-unsolved disappearance but also about how one knows what is real and what is not. She was alive in the morning. Unless she was not. If you see a missing girl, gone fifteen years, from the corner of your eye it must be her ghost. Unless she is still alive.
The story in Ghosts of the Missing is not based on any one disappearance but on rather many cases I’ve read about that remain unsolved and inexplicable. A child walking three blocks down a Manhattan street never makes it to his school bus stop. A young woman drives off an icy road, waving off help from a man who continues on but calls 911 anyway; seven minutes later when the police arrive, her car is still there but she is gone. A girl walks down the hallway of her hi-rise building towards the elevator, planning to meet her friend in the lobby but she never arrives. How is a person in the world one minute and the next, be un-findable?
The poem “The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats is an iteration of the changeling myth that I read and re-read while writing this book. In the poem, a child is led away from his human life by a “faery hand in hand” to live in an idyllic place. There is no danger, only beauty. And yet to be stolen is to be stolen from. Yeats describes the act of vanishing by way of an otherworldly force, an explanation as to how a person can be the world one moment, lost the next.
Ghosts of the Missing, in turn, is not only about the mystery and heartbreak that surrounds an unsolved disappearance. It is about what rises to take the place of answers when there are none.