(4.5 stars) A day after playing billiards with Rory Jones, an arrogant, fly-by-night developer in Auckland, New Zealand, Mark Chamberlain breaks into his apartment and steals every item of value. A burglar who loves his job, Mark then "visits" some adjacent, unoccupied apartments. In an apartment being inventoried after the owner's death, he finds himself staring at one of his own class pictures, part of a bedroom shrine created by the parents of Caroline May, a young school friend who disappeared as a teenager, more than twenty years ago. Many people believe she died in a plane crash in Antarctica, which killed 257 people.
Narrator Mark Chamberlain tells a mesmerizing story, reminiscing about events from 1979, when Caroline vanished, and creating vivid scenes, full of the kinds of precise visual details that a troubled teenager would remember. The reader comes to know Caroline, Mark, and their friends through these reminiscences, which are presented in lightning-like flashes--often brief and without obvious transitions--after which Mark spontaneously returns to thoughts about his life in 2001. Gradually, the reader becomes part of Mark's thinking, recognizing the irrationality of his teenage years but also noting the irrationality of his adult life, as he breaks into homes and tries to connect with people who knew Caroline as he did. How much of what he "remembers" is real and how much is illusion is an open question.
Other characters are also haunted by Caroline--her parents; Harry Bishop, the detective who was in charge of her search; and Varina Sumich, Caroline's best friend. As Harry, now retired, quietly tails Mark, recently released from jail, he sees parallels between himself and Mark and connects them to Caroline's disappearance. Varina Sumich, Caroline's best friend, a swimmer in high school, still seeks refuge in solitary long distance swims at night twenty years later. Regarding Caroline, she comments, "We're all still in love."
As the past and present merge in this novel, some readers will be reminded of the work of Paul Auster. The story flows seamlessly from present to past and back again, and the main character's thoughts reflect the universal concerns and fears of someone trying to survive a prolonged adolescence and learn who he is. An exhibition of twenty-two-year-old photographs from the scene of the plane crash in Antarctica leads to the climax for Mark, Varina, and Harry Bishop, though some readers will find the ending emotionally incomplete. A well-written noir novel (not a pop thriller), which raises questions about reality and how we perceive it, Departure Lounge is a complex visual and psychological study of one lost character who wants to take control of his life. n Mary Whipple