One summer, at the end of a camping trip with high school friends, Jude Vanderjohn goes missing. Shock waves generate wild theories among the residents of her community in rural Pennsylvania: Some think she is dead, others that she has run away. Fourteen-year-old Cindy doesn't know what to believe, but what she comes to realize is that there is an opportunity for her. "I wanted to disappear, and she had left a space."

Cindy lives near Jude but also a world away. Jude — popular, confident, alluring — comes from a good, if chaotic, home, and was raised by a bohemian mother who prioritized books and culture. Cindy, on the other hand, is "ruled by a dark planet": Since her mother absconded, she has dropped out of school and become near feral in a house with one book, two older brothers, ever-dwindling food supplies and on-off electricity.

Cindy checks in on Jude's mother, Bernadette. Before long she is spending more time in the company of this eccentric, erratic and alcoholic woman whose increasingly troubled mind routinely obliterates memories and conjures up illusions.

When Bernadette starts to mistake her for her own daughter — despite the fact that Jude is four years older and racially different — Cindy spots a chance to flee her impoverished home life, slough off her old skin and assume the identity of the glamorous girl she has always envied.

Sarah Elaine Smith's remarkably accomplished debut novel casts a wondrous spell. Her brilliantly drawn young narrator, a young girl starved of maternal love and a stranger to human kindness, easily wins our sympathy. Is it such a crime that she wears Jude's clothes, jewelry and perfume and slips under the police tape to sleep in her bed if it serves a mutually beneficial purpose — providing escape for Cindy and solace for Bernadette? Can an impostor be a force for good?

There is further moral complexity when a terrified Jude makes a desperate call for help — one that Cindy chooses to ignore so as to safeguard her new life with her surrogate mother. From this point on the novel acquires a note of dread, a terrible urgency, as it becomes all too clear that everything Cindy has done and everything she has neglected to do will be evaluated in a painful reckoning.

"Marilou Is Everywhere" has drama and poignancy, but its other source of delight is Smith's stunning prose. Beautiful phrasings or original formulations glint on the page. Cindy extols Jude's special status: "Gravity did not knit her so hard to this earth." After wreaking havoc she surveys her surroundings: "Winter hardly had any teeth left in it, just the early dark and the pink flags of the sky."

Sometimes that lyricism glints too much, the result of which is dazzle over development. But when Smith gets the balance right, we find ourselves swept along while marveling at a unique new voice.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Marilou Is Everywhere
By: Sarah Elaine Smith.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 276 pages, $26.
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