48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister

Image of 48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Mysterious Press
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“In 48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister, Oates has added another disturbing character to her bountiful cast of strange people and devised another chilling work . . .”

“. . . no one is truly missing. Everyone is somewhere though we may not know where. Even the dead—their remains. Somewhere.”

Or so the enigmatic narrator, Georgene Fulmer, says about 30-year-old Marguerite, her more beautiful, attractive, accomplished, older sister; a talented sculptor at a nearby college art department, who has disappeared on April 11, 1991, from their family home in upstate New York. Mysteriously, a silky Dior dress is left on the floor of Marguerite’s bedroom.

Is the dress “of little significance . . . irrelevant and accidental, not a clue?” Or had it “been dropped in haste” or bought by Marguerite herself or by an unknown lover? “If so, which lover?” The novel is peppered with these conjectures plus ambiguous hints as to the truth of how Marguerite disappeared (the why is even more intriguing). Note: at this time, in this place, DNA analysis wasn’t available, so searching for old-fashioned clues had to suffice.

As is usual with Joyce Carol Oates and her fictional forays, this work relishes its strangeness and uses it as a strategy to avoid clarity. It’s as if the author is grinning at the reader behind the mask of her macabre protagonist, who enjoys hints, obfuscations, and makes little effort to be a sympathetic character. Georgene describes herself as “jut-jawed” and admits she hadn’t loved her deceased mother or “not much.” Adding, “But then I don’t love anyone—much.” She recounts that “my life has no secrets. Or, you could say that my secret is that I have no life.” Georgene’s envy of her sister blooms like septic mold on the house’s walls: “to be second-born is to be second-rate.”

Her father, a wealthy investment banker, occupies the huge manse with the two adult sisters (with appearances by their housekeeper), and seems intent on maintaining the family’s centuries-old reputation, as does Georgene. Little emotional warmth is shared between father and daughter—theirs is a stiff and proper relationship. Throughout the story, various mysterious characters appear: a psychic voyager who claims to know Marguerite’s whereabouts, a private detective hired by Mr. Fulmer, an obsessive artist who was Marguerite’s mentor and perhaps lover, and an assortment of nosy relatives who offend Georgene’s desire for privacy.

The eerie residence and Georgene’s parasitic relationship with Marguerite evoke strong comparisons to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is also recounted by an emotionally disturbed sister. The unsettling mood created by Jackson is very similar to the one Oates has achieved many years later, so that one wonders if the prolific Joyce Carol Oates (70 books and counting) has read Jackson’s 1962 work and was directly or indirectly inspired by it. Or, perhaps, the two writers merely share a dark world view?

Oates has fashioned a genre of her own: a form of literary suspense that utilizes psychological glimpses into disturbed minds and feeds on the bizarre relationships between people. While a compelling read, it is not a true crime novel, though it might be categorized as an oblique mystery. Shifting ambiguity replaces a sense of imminent danger, so the book’s attraction is the sleight-of-hand displayed by Georgene rather than by hooking the reader with fast action.  

The book is arranged in 48 short chapters, each beginning with an italicized word or two—clues?—and incorporates many fragmented phrases, terse sentences and paragraphs, and stylistic oddities such as frequent use of italics (see the above quotations) and parentheses that break the flow of the writing. An example: “. . . in reporting this (fleeting/involuntary) glance” and “Inside the (old, stone) cellar wall . . .” Why give such heightened emphasis to words that could be smoothly inserted into the text, set off with less intrusive commas?

The novel’s structure is intimately wrought, almost a “cozy” because of its setting in a big, creepy house and a small town whose denizens want to know one another’s business, especially when a murder might have occurred on their doorsteps. With years serving as a university creative writing professor and growing up in Lockport and Millersport, New York, Joyce Carol Oates writes with authority about colleges, their adjacent communities, and this part of the state. These are comfortable venues for her and recurrent settings in her work.

In 48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister, Oates has added another disturbing character to her bountiful cast of strange people and devised another chilling work, one that will slot into the vast canon for which she is justly renowned.