(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Paperhanger” is a dark tale of the disappearance of a child, the resultant disintegration first of her parents’ marriage and then of their lives, and of a shocking miracle engineered by the paperhanger, a strange dispassionate man. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who unfolds his yarn with consummate skill and a portentousness that vacillates between grim, almost biblical, wisdom and brutal irony.

The narrative opens with the assertion that the vanishing of the child “was an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and the now” and proceeds to detail the events that immediately preceded the child’s disappearance and the actions of the doctor, his wife, the authorities, and the paperhanger after the child vanishes. In the first pages, the doctor’s wife quarrels with the paperhanger on the building site of a mansion being built for her and her husband. The child, Zeineb, is innocently playing with the paperhanger’s long flaxen hair as the mother assails him for his shoddy work and for overcharging her. The paperhanger’s insolent and sexually provocative response enrages the doctor’s wife, and she verbally abuses him, whirls on her heels, and marches out of the house to her silver Mercedes. When she calls for her daughter to join her, there is no response. She goes back into the house and demands to know where her daughter is. No one knows; but led by the paperhanger, the workers search the house and grounds for the missing child. She is nowhere to be found. The sheriff is called, and the authorities search the house and grounds again as well as the vehicles of the workers. An extensive search of the woods behind the house is organized and continues long into the darkness. No trace of the child is found.

In the days that follow, Dr. Jamahl, a Princeton-educated Pakistani who returned to his own country to find a wife befitting his station and selected a woman on the basis of her beauty, begins to blame his wife for the loss of the child. The couple becomes increasingly despondent and estranged. Work ceases on the mansion, and in the days and months that follow, the doctor and his wife...

(The entire section is 883 words.)