Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

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.

32 comments

  1. Oh, such an eloquent review and yes, the discussion around relationships and grief sounds so interesting, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do this one!

    1. Thanks Merenia! It’s a bit of an emotional one and I think if I had young children I couldn’t put myself through the imagining it happening to me!

  2. I’m afraid I scrolled down past the review because I don’t want to spoil reading it for myself! But just to say that I am desperately waiting for Persephone to start selling copies!! I’ll come back and read it when I have read it.

  3. Sounds like an interesting choice for Persephone. I admit that I haven’t had much success reading other Gutcheon novels, but this one does sound intriguing, though in the past it was her style rather her content that turned me off.

    1. It is an interesting choice and I actually quite like the fact that they haven’t been afraid to mix it up a bit and challenge their readers to break their mid century comfort zone! I’m really intrigued by her other novels after a quick peek on amazon so I wonder what I will think of them…her style seems to work for me so perhaps I will have more success.

  4. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive and to read this for Persephone Reading Week.

    I was in the shop last week discussing this with Lydia and I asked why the “modern” choice amongst the older books in the catalogue and she said that it has a very timeless feel to it, as if it could be set in 20s or 30s, and that Nicola has been wanting to reprint it for some time. Lydia was blown away by its emotional intensity and I think I will be too.

    1. I can’t wait for your review!
      That’s really interesting about Lydia’s comments; I can see what she means about it having a timeless quality to it. The fact that it’s based around relationships and emotions means it could really have been set at any time. I’ll be interested to hear what others think once their copies arrive!

      1. I enjoyed this post so much that I ordered the Persephone catalogue which arrived today. I absolutely MUST find a quiet spot on an afternoon and pour over it and this will likely be an order some time for me. Thank you for all your posts and reads and suggestions.

  5. Well you and Claire have cleared up some questions I had as to why Persephone was adding this title to their collection. I look to their books not for the timeless stories but for stories from a certain era so I haven’t put in an order for this one. But, as my taste in reading material has a way of cascading into various themes, who knows, perhaps at another time. You write such intriguing reviews, Rachel, you could convince me to read just about anything!

    1. Yes it is a book that I think some Persephone lovers who love their books because of the time period most of them evoke will not even bother trying. That’s a shame because it is a genuinely brilliant book and just as good as many other Persephones in my opinion, but each to their own – if you don’t like more modern novels then that’s fair enough!
      I hope you do read this at some point though, Darlene!
      Thanks for the compliment…I’ll try convincing you to read something more up your street next time!

  6. This sounds terribly sad.😦 I’m interested that it’s so modern, and that it’s set in America – like you, I had the impression that Persephone published all books from the mid-century. I also thought their titles were from British authors.

    1. It’s not all doom and gloom, promise! Yes, Persephone does publish quite a few American authors, and some men, too! Most of their books are mid century so this is quite a departure for them…I wonder whether it will trigger more contemporary books to be printed by Persephone?

  7. Oh my. This sounds wonderful and heartbreaking. I love novels that are psychologically complex, and this sounds like it is exactly that. In some ways I am surprised that Persephone has opted to print this one as to me it sounds like quite a departure from their other works, but I trust it is a good fit if you say so. Regardless, this definitely sounds like a book I’d love to read, so I’m going keep an eye out for it!

    1. Yes it is wonderful, heartbreaking and psychologically complex – perfectly described! I hope you get around to reading it. I’m pleased that Persephone hasn’t been afraid to branch out but I do think some of the devotees might avoid it because of its more contemporary date which would be a real shame!

  8. That’s really interesting. I’ve heard some good things about Beth Gutcheon but just haven’t “made time” yet: your review is certainly encouraging though!

    1. I hope you manage to get around to reading it soon- I have lots of authors on my TBR pile that I haven’t managed to ‘make time’ for yet either so I know how it is!

  9. Interesting choice for Persephone – had no idea they were going ‘modern’! I do remember enjoying Gutcheon’s Five Fortunes many years ago.

    1. I know – it is a very controversial choice but as I say the themes are very ‘Persephone’ so if people could look past the publication date I think they would be pleasantly surprised. I am looking forward to reading more Beth Gutcheon in future!

  10. I read this years ago and really liked it, which prompted me to read more of her work and agree it’s too bad she isn’t more well known. The movie was also well done in case you are curious to see it. I was a little surprised that Persephone chose this at first, but only because it is still in print (here at least). Glad you enjoyed it, too, and your description does make it sound like a good fit with the other Persephone titles!

    1. I’m glad to hear you liked her other stuff too Danielle, because I’d like to explore more of her books. It’s not in print in the UK but it’s widely available very cheaply second hand – it’s an unusual choice but it does fit!

  11. I was surprised by Persephone’s decision to reprint this one as the period is more modern than their other titles. Thanks for the information as to why they’re reprinting it & for the review. I hope my copy arrives in time for Persephone Week

    1. Yes – I do hope not too many people are put off by its comparative modernity to the rest of the catalogue as they will be really missing out! I hope it does too – I look forward to your review!

  12. Well, you’ve convinced me. I was also surprised by this more current book being published by Persephone but now I know I will definitely read it.

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