The disappearance or death of a child is quite literally a parent's worst nightmare, and there are countless thrillers revolving around such scenarios. Here, Ursu takes that nightmare and twists it just enough so that the focus is not on the hunt for the missing child, but on the effect on the parents and family. It's a clever way into the topic that neatly sidesteps the procedural plot points that dominate thrillers about the same topic, and allow for a much richer exploration of the psychology of such an event.
The Woodrow family is at the circus for their 7-year-old daughter Greta's birthday and their possibly developmentally disabled 5-year-old son, James, is fidgety and withdrawn until the appearance of Mike the Clown. All of a sudden, the normally shy James perks up and even volunteers to be part of a trick. However, the clown's disappearing act becomes all too real when the Woodrow's son vanishes in a puff of smoke, and no one, not the clown, the cops, or the parents have the remotest understanding of how it happened, or where's he gone. Each family member copes with the loss in their own way (mother sinks into near-catatonic depression, father has wild rages, and Greta creates a rich tale about where her brother has gone), and while these are somewhat obvious reactions, they are vividly and realistically rendered (it should come as no surprise that the least obvious coping mechanism of the three, Greta's story, is the most interesting).
The obvious message of the book is that no matter how closely we watch and guard over our children, we ultimately have only the illusion of control over what happens to them. In the case of this story, the fates can literally spirit them away. This is the kind of theme that I'm not sure I would have found interesting in any way prior to becoming a parent, but now that I am, strikes me with intensity. A thought-provoking read, especially for parents.