The Richardson Review
Story Tom & Emma Richardson
Set in Paris, Michael F. Smith’s The Hands of Strangers (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, $9.95) depicts the aftermath of every parent’s nightmare: the disappearance — and probable abduction — of a child. As the novella opens, Jon and Estelle’s 9-year-old daughter, Jennifer, has been missing two months, having vanished during a school outing to the Musee D’Orsay: “A typical field trip in a typical Paris day. She was there as they sat in a circle in front of a Van Gogh. She was there as they sat in a circle in front of a Cezanne. She was there when they ate their sack lunches in the courtyard. She was not there when they counted heads to walk to the bus stop to go back to school.”
In the ensuing months, Jon and Estelle respond and react to the horror—and to the awful probability that they will not see their daughter again; each drifts into a separate loneliness trying to cope with the loss. The reader learns early on that “They have stopped sleeping in the same room because they don’t sleep. Estelle takes the couch and Jon lies in the bedroom. He hears her all hours of the night — pacing, opening the refrigerator door, changing channels.” Jon spends two days a week after his work at L’Ecole Des Langues handing out pamphlets with Jennifer’s picture in metro stops and outside government buildings, pinning up posters at train stations and on notice boards in public parks. He walks the city streets, stops in cafés for coffee, buys cigarettes at magazine kiosks and wanders into more cafés for glass after glass of whiskey. Estelle stays home by the telephone and plots new strategies for the flyer distributions, designs new posters and puts up a map of the city on the kitchen wall highlighting areas that are “less likely to prove helpful, tourist spots and business centers where people hurry.”
While the couple moves towards an almost-inevitable fracture, both Jon and Estelle waver between hope and despair, faith and doubt. Jon is haunted by imagining Jennifer in the “hands of strangers” and “when he prays, he prays that she can at least be given a civil abduction.” As the mother of an abducted child, Estelle prays “because she didn’t know what else to do” — that, and waits for the dominoes of “little miracles” to fall.
EMMA: It’s testament to Michael Smith’s craft that Jennifer’s absence in her parents’ lives is mirrored by her increasing “absence” from any mention in the novella. The reader learns early on just a few things about Jennifer: She is 9, has “thin, wavy hair,” carries a pink backpack and has gotten her father to buy her a “teen fashion magazine.” When Estelle steps into Jennifer’s bedroom “with hopes of smelling her smell,” even “the smell is gone.”
For me, the grimness of Smith’s story, however, is counterpoised by the compassion of people in the periphery of Jon and Estelle’s lives: Jon’s co-workers who offer “hidden sympathy in tiny gestures that he appreciates”; the owner of the couple’s favorite bakery who insists they wait for hot croissants from the oven and who won’t let them pay; Detective Marceau who telephones every week even if there is nothing new to report, each time with “a touch of empathy in his voice”; and especially, Monsieur Conrer who owns the café at the end of the block, and who a week after Jennifer’s disappearance Jon sees holding hands with Estelle across a table and crying quietly with her.
TOM: You are right about the art of “absence” in the novella. The story is not really about Jennifer; it is about her parents and how they represent the fragility of human relationships in the modern world. Both Jon and Estelle are also “lost” to their own parents in their own ways. Jon, the son of a Southern American father and a Swiss mother, is an expatriate and returns home to the U.S. only for his parents’ funerals. Estelle’s parents have retired “to the northern coast” from their Paris shops, and though one might expect them to be engaged with their daughter’s loss, curiously they are not.
The story is told with only a bare-bones plot, yet it is as compelling as a good mystery. However, the reader should not rush to know the ending; rather, one should take pleasure in Smith’s ability to craft a sentence, to use just enough words and just the right words and to create characters that engage the reader’s sympathies. Smith artfully follows the advice of Henry James to avoid the “weak specifications” and thereby let the readers imagine the horror of Jennifer’s experience — as Jon and Estelle are forced to do themselves. He effectively captures the tension and loneliness of this challenged relationship and reminds us of how much the so-called meaningless events of life can be so meaningful, although not always for the good.