Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon: lost children and the luminosity of waiting

… It was the afternoon Alex disappeared, and the phone was ringing. If she answered it, her life would wind back, like a movie run backwards, to a moment before she knew. It would start forwards again, but sane this time, the world a sunlit idle place. On the phone would be the school nurse, or Jocelyn: ‘Hello, Mrs Selky? Yes, I knew you’d be worried, but Alex was feeling sick at his tummy, so we thought he should lie down in the office until you could come for him. Yes. Oh, he’s fine. Would you like to speak to him?’
… ‘Hello … Mommy?’
‘Hi, sweetie, it’s Jocelyn. Justine and Alex just begged me to come to our house; they’re in the middle of acting out Charlie’s Angels or something – yes. So why don’t you leave him for supper; come over at six and we’ll have a glass of wine. Want to speak to him?’…
And then Alex: “Hello, Mommy?’

I was on the look-out for something a bit different, and a colleague of mine had recently attended an event at Persephone Books so let me browse through their catalogue. There were several books I liked the look of, but as I’m trying to save money at the moment, I went for one only, and this was it. As an aside, the book has been made into a film, Without A Trace, so some of you may already know the storyline (NB: don’t click on the link to avoid spoilers!). But as I’d never seen it, then it was all new to me.

The first sentence completely captured me:

You could hardly get to age thirty-four without learning something about loss.

How true. And that feeling of being gripped by loss – here of course the sudden disappearance of a child, which is something I can’t even begin to imagine – stayed with me throughout. Even though that terrible sense of waiting for something to happen experienced by Susan Selky, our main character, went on for a little too long in my opinion before events started to take a more active turn. Still, there was something in the sheer luminosity of the prose that sucked me right into the scene and kept me there.

I did love Susan and her view of life and events, or non-events, as they occur. She has great clarity and isn’t afraid to see through the hype to what’s actually going on. Therefore her character is a valuable guide and companion amongst the media frenzy, increasingly desperate police work and general emotional politics of losing a child as the search for Alex steps up and then, slowly and inevitably, fades away.

However, I think if we’d stayed entirely in Susan’s viewpoint then it might have become simply too intense and stressful so I was glad to see the occasional foray into the viewpoint of her friends and also the policeman in charge of the case, Menetti. The latter is a great counterpoint to Susan as he’s a happily married family man with seven children (surely a rarity amongst literary policemen …), as compared to her separated single mother status. Amongst her friends, I must also mention TJ whom I loved for his generous heart and willingness to get stuck in:

‘I’m on my way,’ he (TJ) said, and the phone clicked down. TJ had been Graham’s (Susan’s husband) closest friend, since graduate school, and he was Alex’s godfather. He was smart and wry and laconic and absolutely true. If you were facing the longest night of your life, TJ was the one you’d want to face it with.

However I didn’t at all like his actions later on which seemed very much out of character, both for him and for Susan. So something of a rare mis-step in this book, I think.

Susan’s husband, Graham, although not living with her, is also a tour-de-force, and his involvement both in the search and Susan’s life helps the plot (a) avoid becoming a one-trick pony; and (b) shift its focus at key moments. A valuable asset then. I also liked the fact that he’s definitely not seen as perfect in any way, and indeed his faults and failings build up the tension on all levels. That said, there is a moment of cliché between him and Susan which I didn’t much like, but apart from that, Gutcheon is a woman very much in charge of her material and intently focused on character.

I also learnt a lot in this book (and always via Susan’s voice so it never at any point become the dreaded novelistic “info dump”) about people’s immediate reactions and judgements to the loss of a child, how the media respond and the huge range of difficult emotions parents must go through. In addition we see how the friends and acquaintances of the family become involved, a factor which highlights in some cases the difficult and occasionally criminal things about them that the police uncover and that Susan didn’t previously know:

Susan stared at him (Menetti). There was so much dislike in his voice when he spoke Robert’s (the brother-in-law) name. Why? She actually had opened her mouth to ask him, when she stopped herself. A cold new Susan realised, for the first time, that there was no longer anything she wouldn’t believe. There were no longer any questions you could ask if you weren’t prepared for any filth to be the answer.

And just as I wondered how much longer the terrible but utterly non-sentimental emotions could be wrung out of the page as we all wait for news of Alex, the plot gathers essential pace and additional tension. The final chapters are excellent and it ends at just the right point, though with much future fall-out and changes in the offing for the characters involved which happens (essentially, I feel) “off-page”. Kudos to the author for not giving us an epilogue.

So, this is a difficult book in terms of the storyline, but the prose is excellent. If you’re feeling strong enough, I’d definitely recommend it.

Still Missing, Persephone Books, 2010, ISBN: 978 1903 155783

[Anne is contentedly child-free but always interested in the fascinating variety of women’s experiences. Strange to say, she’s written about the difficulties of motherhood herself.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

8 comments on “Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon: lost children and the luminosity of waiting

  1. john latham
    May 26, 2011

    “You could hardly get to age thirty-four without learning something about loss.”

    Stunning- absolutely stunning. Although I love to read all kinds of writing by women (especially those Virago modern classics from charity shops), lost children have been so in the news I might not read this book but I am so grateful for the review and for its drawing attention to a first line to die for.

    Thanks, John.

  2. annebrooke
    May 26, 2011

    Thanks, John! It is indeed a challenging (for all the right reasons) and astonishing read.

    All good wishes!

    Anne
    xxx

  3. Jackie
    May 27, 2011

    I would think that having a child go missing would be one of the worse experiences in life. I don’t know how someone could recover from that. It would be so much worse than losing them to sickness or an accident, there would be one’s own imagination to deal with as well & I would think that would take someone to the breaking point.
    The only book I’ve ever read on this subject is “A Child in Time” by Ian McEwan, because Ralph Fiennes had been in talks to be in the film version, which I don’t think was ever actually made.
    Thanks for having the courage to read & review it. I’m going to click on the link for the movie, in hopes that it all had a happy ending, but I bet I’m going to be disappointed.

  4. annebrooke
    May 27, 2011

    Very true, Jackie – a terrible loss I can’t even begin to imagine. I believe the film ending is the same as the book’s, but both of those are different to the true life incident that inspired them …

    Anne
    xxx

  5. Lisa
    May 27, 2011

    Great review, Anne. I’m reading a thriller at the moment in which a ten-month-old baby has gone missing (Frantic by Katherine Howell) but from the build-up and style, I’m pretty confident that will end happily. Even so, it’s pressing a lot of my buttons and making me feel quite anxious and stressed, so I’m not sure I’d be up to reading this one. Having said all of that, I thought the extracts of Still Missing were great and it sounds like a very powerful and moving read.

  6. annebrooke
    May 27, 2011

    Thanks, Lisa! And it certainly was a very powerful read. You’ll have to let us know how Frantic was when you’ve finished it though maybe your next book should be a little less stressful!

    Anne
    xxx

  7. kirstyjane
    May 27, 2011

    This sounds tremendous, and quite traumatic. Many thanks for another brilliant review!

  8. annebrooke
    May 28, 2011

    Thanks, Kirsty! It’s certainly a book that grips you and doesn’t let go …

    Anne
    xxx

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