Una Mannion's plaintive sophomore novel, "Tell Me What I Am," opens like a boilerplate thriller about a missing woman but is more concerned with the society that renders such disappearances commonplace, unwittingly enabling those responsible and devastating those left behind.

When Nessa learns her older sister Deena didn't show for work, she worries there's been an accident. Thirteen hours later, with Deena still missing, she tries to pick up her 4-year-old niece, Ruby, who spent the weekend with her dad. Lucas refuses to turn his daughter over and soon drags a hysterical Ruby away. Deena had restraining orders against her ex, but he makes sure her family has no contact with Ruby, moving with the child from Philadelphia to Vermont, where his mother lives on an island.

Deena disappears in 2004, and the novel, told from both Ruby and Nessa's perspectives, is a patchwork of scenes between 1998, when Deena and Lucas meet, and 2018.

From the moment Nessa spies him ogling her then-25-year-old sister at a Halloween party, Lucas exudes trouble. But Deena moves in with him three weeks later, and in six months, she's pregnant.

He's a possessive, bullying, narcissistic know-it-all who manipulates Deena, physically and mentally. He's also an encyclopedia of clichés, from loving guns and talk radio to hating "adults in Birkenstocks, especially if wearing socks," bicyclists in Lycra and feminists. In 2016, he won't say "Hillary." Making the ostensibly calculating abuser embody every last boorish male inclination dilutes some of the novel's more astute observations, and demystifies its mystery to a significant degree.

The novel's great strength lies, as it did in Mannion's debut, "A Crooked Tree," in its arresting portrait of adolescence. Ruby learns to hunt, fish and forage in Vermont, but isn't enrolled in school until she's 8, after her father is reported to the state board of education. She develops friendships, though she has a hard time maintaining them due to her traumatic past.

Ruby doesn't even (re-)learn her mother's name until age 12. She knows only Lucas' story: her mother "left us. She was disloyal. She betrayed us. She was messed up." Throughout her teens, Ruby hesitantly probes the truth but fears hurting her father or disobeying him by using the internet. The novel's most credulous plot point is that Ruby completes a high school education without having a computer or going online.

While Ruby adapts and often excels despite Lucas, Deena's disappearance destroys Nessa's life. Mannion writes, "There was nothing she could experience except through the lens of what had happened to Deena." She runs through her inheritance and battles her demons, yet never stops trying to keep tabs on Ruby.

Between Nessa's rage and the novel's repeated references to troubled, abusive men — from Boko Haram to Dick Cheney to the murderers of Medusa, "Tell Me What I Am" demands an answer about a state-of-mind as well as an identity. Mannion's answer to the former is resolute: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer whose next review for the Star Tribune is of Eliza Clarke's "Penance."

Tell Me What I Am

By: Una Mannion.

Publisher: Harper, 288 pages, $30.