Lena Beck has been missing for 4,825 days.
“That’s over 13 years. Thirteen years during which every ring of the telephone might signal the one message, the only message that would change everything,” Lena’s father, Matthias, tells us in Romy Hausmann’s tantalizingly disturbing debut, DEAR CHILD (Flatiron, 368 pp., $26.99).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins like this: A woman and a little girl who have been involved in a hit-and-run car accident are taken by ambulance to a hospital two hours from Munich. The girl, Hannah, speaks for her bloodied, unconscious “Mama,” who has been injured. She says she doesn’t know their last name. Her family doesn’t have a telephone. When she followed her mother out of their cabin in the forest, they left her brother behind to take care of “stains on the carpet.” Finally, Hannah whispers to the nun who is taking all this down: “Nobody must find us.”
The only thing more perplexing than this chillingly calm girl — think “Poltergeist” — is the thought of being trapped in the hellhole she calls home. We learn that the windows are covered with insulation panels, the cabinets are locked, the air is stale and recirculated, and the plumbing is primitive. Nevertheless, Hannah is eager to get back there.
Interspersed with these revelations are snippets of memory from her companion, whom we’ll call Lena (like the 23-year-old abducted student, she has a small scar on her forehead). As she regains consciousness, Lena remembers the smell of the air after rain, the swing in her grandparents’ garden and the feeling of “fine white sand between the toes.” Her sense of longing is clear, but we don’t know how or why she was yanked out of the world she yearns for and where she has been in the meantime. What happened to the man who holds the keys to the cabin? What will happen to this woman and her two children, who think it’s normal to have one toy each, prescribed times to use the bathroom and no access to the outside world?
Hausmann unfurls her dark mystery from alternating viewpoints. Hannah, Lena and Matthias share time with another character, who will remain nameless for the purposes of this review. Their perspectives shift quickly, sometimes too quickly. Remember that playground ride where you’d stand in the middle of a metal disk while someone whirled you in circles? Hausmann is that devilish friend, pausing only to add another character to her spinning tray. Like the woman in the hospital bed, you’ll lose your bearings — and maybe that’s the point.