THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond

What is it with books about disappearing kids? This is such a common theme among fiction writers – it seems like there are endless books on the shelves about kids, big and little, who disappear, and the aftermath left by their absence. I read a post recently (which I can’t find now) that said that it’s a good theme for a book because it’s so rich – it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and there is so much rich emotional material to mine.

A few years ago, I picked up one of these disappearing kids novels in a used bookstore – The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond – and it has sat on my TBR pile ever since. But I found the audio at the library a few weeks ago and decided to give it a try.

Abby is a thirtysomething photographer living in San Francisco who is engaged to Jake, a high school teacher with a six-year old daughter named Emma. When the book opens, Abby and Emma are walking on a foggy beach at the western end of the city. Abby is momentarily distracted by a dead seal on the beach, which she is moved to photograph, and when she looks up, Emma is gone. The rest of the book is about Jake and Abby’s search for Emma, and is told from Abby’s perspective. Richmond explores what Abby and Jake go through after Emma’s disappearance – the search, the impact on their relationship, the people they turn to for comfort, and, of course, the mystery surrounding what happened to Emma.

The Year of Fog is very readable, and the suspense of the mystery propelled me along. I think Richmond is a good writer; in addition to just telling a suspenseful tale, she explores the nature of memory and photography, and how they can each trick people in believing different things and shaping their perspectives on life. I also loved the San Francisco setting – lots of detail and description about a place I love.

In retrospect, though, I don’t think The Year of Fog is a perfect book, nor close to it. There are almost 350 pages between Emma’s disappearance and the resolution of what happened to her, which is way too many. Abby’s search for Emma is repetitive and monotonous, for sure, but that could have been communicated in a less repetitive and monotonous way. Abby’s relationship with men is also sort of weird – there are lots of men floating around who are interested in her, but she doesn’t seem to know how to deal with them, nor does she communicate particularly well with Jake. And then there are little factual details that didn’t make sense, and which bothered me – like Emma sitting in the front seat of Abby’s car (kids aren’t allowed to ride in the front) and people using actual film in 2008 and Emma doing or saying things that six year-olds are really too young for.

I would have preferred less time spent on the year of fog, and more time spent talking about what happened when the fog lifted. There was so much buildup and backstory that the actual denouement felt rushed and skimpy on detail.

I listed to the first half of The Year of Fog on audio, and read the second half. The audio was fine – totally adequate. I eventually got impatient with the audio because I think I was impatient with the story – reading is so much faster than listening so I opted for the faster option.

Again, this is a compelling story, and there are some flashes of powerful, writing throughout, especially when Richmond talks about memory and how we process what has happened in our lives. I just would have liked some editing in the middle and some slower pacing at the end.