We Have Always Lived in the Castle; here, Lucy Brill, whose two elder siblings, brother Ethan and sister Rae, both troubled teens, have inexplicably disappeared. Gone missing. Separately. This loss will rend the Brill family asunder.
Tem reveals some of the true horrors of childhood: the incomprehension of the adult world, the white-hot hatred of parents, the first blush of sexuality and crushes, the bitterness between siblings, the overwhelming desires to both flee the home and to burrow into its safety. But Lucy is learning how adults can barely comprehend the enormity of the world's unpredictability themselves, nor can they keep their own children safe forever… or even at all.
If she thought about home, there were Mom and Dad and Ethan and Rae and danger and sadness and her little brothers and sisters and fear. If she thought about her friends, there were all kinds of things she didn't even understand, like boys and makeup and AIDS and college and French kissing and drugs. If she thought about herself, there was a headful of strangers.
The family learns from the social worker who’d attended to Ethan that Ethan has died, most likely from a drug overdose. Which is bad enough but Lucy, Lucy is visited by his… ghost? Her own guilt and fears? Eventually even her parents confess to sometimes seeing the shades of their two missing children (hence, I'm assuming, the title). Lucy is terrified that their disappearances mean more to her parents than her own life, or the lives of the younger Brill children. In her rebellion, Lucy turns to Jerry, the social worker who she can't seem to stop thinking and writing in her diary about. Then Rae's handwriting appears in Lucy's diary, messages from... where, exactly?
Now, it took me a while to really get into Prodigal; in the first few chapters it seemed unsteady, pacing a bit off, some of the family dialogue seems too rote; but bit by bit Tem's writing grew stronger and Lucy's personality more vivid. Several disturbing scenes of unexpected horror, of everyday mental anguish, have lingered in my memory since I first read Prodigal in 1991; I won't spoil them here. The subterranean climax feels odd but right, a nightmarish menagerie of dirty runaways (They looked like pictures Lucy had seen of fetuses in a womb) and a parent in jeopardy, as Lucy goes down, down, down to confront, to defeat, for once and all, that headful of strangers that haunts her childhood so.