What to Read When You Want to Disappear

By

When I moved from my small, rural hometown to New York City I was brutally homesick, and it was as if people could smell it on me. Who was this scrawny provincial walking around like a sick dog, ruining all the fun? It took me a while to make friends—even longer to make real ones—but somewhere along the way I discovered a secret: the delicious, intoxicating power of being anonymous.

I’d always valued privacy, but in a heaving metropolis you can all but disappear in a crowd. I learned to love eating alone, a luxury that I don’t get to enjoy very often anymore. Perusing a book in a bar by candlelight? I haven’t had the pleasure in years. Afternoons were lost in the stacks of my university library, and there was a particular stretch of Broadway I adored, from 4th to 14th—it was so beautiful in lamplight that it made my heart ache.

Walking along that stretch one day, I wandered into The Strand for the first time and found of a copy of E.B. White’s Here Is New York, which begins, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” It was as if White had reached through time and whispered in my ear. Two decades later, I still recognize an urge in myself to disappear sometimes, whether in a crowd or a costume, by circumstance or by choice. These books speak to that desire in all of us to vanish for a spell.

***

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
The premise of this literary mystery—a sort of thriller in prose poems—couldn’t be more charming. A beloved Brazilian author takes her suitcase up an almond tree and vanishes. The story takes some harrowing turns as a translator takes up the search for the missing writer. Ways to Disappear is a delightfully original meditation on who wants to be found and who wants to be left to their almond trees.

 

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
In this stunning debut collection, there’s a tension between witnessing and participating, the desire to be seen but also the desire to control that vision. Sotelo uses surprising language, insight, and wit to explore what it means to be Mexican-American as well as a young woman in a male-dominated world. In many ways, these poems are the opposite of hiding—they are bright and bold. But there are also persona poems that modernize Greek myths such as “Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man,” which advises “Make the monsters fall in love and scold them when they disappear down the hallway.”

 

Blood and Soap by Linh Dinh
This is one of my favorite short story collections, and I probably would have found an excuse to include it regardless of the list’s theme. Nonetheless, several of these inventive tales involve elaborate scams, people pretending to be what they’re not. For example, in “!” the local English teacher Ho Muoi turns out to not know English at all, but has instead invented his own language. Equal parts surreal and worldly, disarming and disorienting, Blood and Soap is a book you need on your bookshelf.

 

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Based on real events, Girl in Disguise recounts the extraordinary life of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective. Warne slinks or strides, as the occasion dictates, into dangerous situations, relying on her skills of subterfuge to solve cases and escape danger. She is perhaps most well-known for helping foil an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, but in Macallister’s capable hands, every part of this story is riveting.

 

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry
The premise of this twisty thriller is the stuff of nightmares. A thirteen-year-old girl is kidnapped from her bedroom, and while her family never completely gives up hope, they do settle into a zombie-like existence. Their listlessness is interrupted by a knock on the door and the arrival of a young woman claiming to be their missing daughter. But is it really her? Gentry uses this compelling premise to explore the rippling effects of trauma.

 

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
Actress turned amateur detective Dayna Anderson would rather be in the spotlight than in the shadows, but a string of bad luck leads her to a new career. Still, I’d argue Garrett’s entertaining mystery definitely belongs on a list about disappearing and not just because I lost myself in the story. Most of the characters in this Los Angeles-based book are not who they seem to be—and that’s not even accounting for the nose jobs.

 

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
What does it mean to know you’re cursed? In each generation of Juli’s family, a daughter goes missing, so nobody is surprised when her sister drops out of school and off the grid. But just because it was predicted doesn’t mean that the family isn’t worried, and Juli flies to Korea to look after their aging parents. This memorable novel weaves superstition with family sorrow to create brilliantly crafted characters.

 

Lucy Negro, Redux by Caroline Randall Williams
This genre-blending book combines poetry and scholarship to explore the possibility that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady was a London madam named Black Luce. The search for the truth is as mesmerizing as Williams’s bold, precise poems. The eighteen sonnets alone are worth picking up this collection. Each uses a Shakespeare line as a jumping off point, then becomes something wholly its own. In “{Now Is Black Beauty’s Successive Heir},” jubilation collides with reality: “Oh my stars, this world! / Oh, walk around in it, sugar.”

 

Incognitum by Aubrie Marrin
The title of Marrin’s moving collection refers to the fossilized remains of a mammoth, and the poems explore illness through the lens of a sobering truth—we’ll all be extinct one day. The theme of extinction links these personal and provocative pieces. Incognitum is a book of exploration, daring and beautiful.

 

The Likeness by Tana French
It just seems irresponsible not to include The Likeness on this list. Tana French’s masterpiece begins with the discovery of a dead woman, Lexie Madison, who looks uncannily like Detective Cassie Maddox. Without any solid leads, Cassie assumes the identity of the victim, ingratiating herself into the lives of Lexie’s friends and losing herself along the way. While the murder mystery is intriguing, it’s the unusually close relationships between the characters that elevate this book to something truly special.

 

And to close out this awesome list, we just had to include Erica’s forthcoming novel, The Blue Kingfisher, out on October 9 from Polis Books!  – Ed.

The Blue Kingfisher by Erica Wright
Kat knows she’s living on borrowed time, waiting for her violent past to catch up with her. Still, she doesn’t expect men to start falling from the sky. On a desolate morning in Fort Washington Park, Kat discovers the body of her building’s French expat maintenance man atop the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse. The NYPD is quick to dismiss his death as suicide, another lost soul leaping from the bridge overhead. Kat is less than convinced, especially when she learns about his dangerous side hustle, finding jobs for immigrant members of their community. Her investigation turns up unexpected connections to Manhattan’s tony art world, not to mention a host of dark superstitions. When she goes undercover with a deep-sea fishing company, she gets a little too cozy with a colorful cast of characters and a couple of jellyfish. Will she find his killer before her past drags her under?


Erica Wright's new crime novel The Blue Kingfisher will be released this fall. Her debut The Red Chameleon was one of O Magazine's Best Books of Summer 2014. Her followup The Granite Moth was a 2016 Silver Falchion Award Finalist. She is also the author of two poetry collections, Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is a senior editor at Guernica as well as a former editorial board member for Alice James Books. More from this author →