This is about to be republished by Persephone and I think it will be the most modern of their novels. Published in the 1980’s, I just so happened to find a copy secondhand a while back, and picked it up after reading a story about a boy who disappeared in New York in the 80’s and was never found. It’s interesting that Persephone has chosen to reprint a book that is so recent in comparison to their others; they have become synonymous, for me, anyway, with mainly mid century novels by authors who were popular but have sunk into obscurity, and Still Missing doesn’t fit this mould at all. However, on opening it, I found it to be quintessentially ‘Persephone’ in its exploration of the marriage of Susan Selky, her role as a mother, her emotions, and her relationships with those around her, and with herself. It is a startlingly good novel; beautifully and realistically written, powerfully moving, and excellently characterised and plotted. I was so drawn into the story that I could hardly bear to put it down, and it moved me to tears in several places. Don’t be put off by its seeming incongruity amongst the usual fare of the Persephone catalogue; it fully deserves to be there, and I can’t understand why Beth Gutcheon hasn’t had more success or fame. A common lament amongst us Persephone readers about its authors, I fear!
Susan Selky is a Harvard English professor, living comfortably in Boston’s Back Bay neighbourhood with her almost seven year old son Alex. She is recently separated from her husband Graham, a fellow English professor, who has been consistently unfaithful. Despite this they are still close and Susan is far from moving on from him. It is a sunny summer’s morning when Susan, as usual, watches Alex walk to the corner of their street on his way to school; it is only two blocks away from their front door and Susan has allowed Alex to walk alone for quite some time. He is a sensible and reliable boy, and Susan has never had any concern for his safety. Returning home from work later that day, Susan becomes anxious when Alex doesn’t return home and calls her good friend Jocelyn, whose daughter is in Alex’s class, to check whether he is playing at her house. Susan’s blood runs cold when Jocelyn’s daughter tells her that Alex never showed up at school that day. Moments later the police have arrived, and Susan’s worst nightmare begins. Her beloved little boy is missing, and she has no idea where he is, or whether he is dead or alive.
The lead Detective on the case, Detective Menetti, assures Susan that children just do not disappear without a trace, and that Alex will undoubtedly be back with them by that evening. But as the hours go into days, and the days into weeks, and the weeks into months, with no sign of Alex, the only person with any hope that Alex is still alive is Susan. Her husband Graham moves back into the family home, but their relationship is pushed to breaking point by Susan’s inability to accept that Alex is not coming back. Graham has given up hope, and when a friend of the family is arrested for Alex’s murder, Susan’s refusal to believe that he did it and that Alex is dead infuriates Graham, as well as everyone else who knows her. Her friends stop calling; they can’t deal with Susan’s pain and her insistence that everyone is wrong about Alex. Even the loyal and conflicted Detective Menetti, one of the standout characters in the book, is becoming frustrated with Susan’s phone calls about what, as far as he and the rest of the police department is concerned, is a closed case. Susan is unable to go back to a ‘normal’ life; her perceptions of everyone around her and everything she does have been permanently changed. Friends she thought she could trust have turned their backs on her; Graham has given up on their son, something Susan can’t understand; and everyone who wants to get involved with the case seems to have their own agenda. Susan’s struggle to have her voice heard and to recover a sense of her life without her son in it is painful to read, but it’s also a powerful exploration of love, loss, and the devastation grief can bring to an otherwise ordinary life.
What I loved most about this book is how real, and how emotive, it was. Beth Gutcheon perfectly describes how suddenly a life can go from being normal and uneventful to being ripped apart from the core, with no way back to that previous normality. Susan is a wonderful character, whose strength throughout her ordeal lies in her hope and belief in her son, and in her firm conviction that she would know in her heart if he was dead. This mother love overpowers all sense and all other relationships in her life, pushing away her husband and her friends, who quickly tire of having to be around someone whose life is now defined by the pain of losing her son. The selfishness of her friends was difficult to read; at first they are all there with offers of help and support, but their own lives soon take over, and before long they start criticising Susan for her negative attitude. They resent her for not responding to their attempts at ‘helping’, and then drift off to live their own lives, bored of being associated with a woman who can’t deal with the fact that her son is, to them, anyway, clearly dead. This is all too easy to do; people can only bear so much of another person’s suffering, after all, but I found it so poignant that it was only in her time of desperate need that Susan realised how empty so many of the relationships in her life had always been, and how little she knew the people she thought she was closest to.
This is an emotional, and at times frustrating read, but it is, overall, a magnificently written novel about the unravelling of one ordinary woman’s life, that you definitely don’t need to be a parent to relate to and empathise with. It is so much more than just the story of a missing boy, and Gutcheon’s insights into relationships and grief and the true nature of people’s hearts is what made this such a gripping and excellent read for me, and reminded me very much of that other Persephone favourite, Dorothy Whipple. A must read; and, according to the website, it’s out tomorrow in lovely Persephone grey livery!
FINALLY: The winner of Foreclosed is A Bookish Space! Congratulations! Email me your address and I’ll send it out asap.