256pp, paperback, £12.99
Reviewed by N.J. Cooper
A disturbing fashion has been growing in fiction, particular crime fiction, for novels about women teetering on the edge of mental and emotional breakdown. The threatened collapse isn’t what disturbs me. The worrying aspect is the way the heroines wallow in their victimhood.
Catherine Lacey’s first novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, takes television scriptwriter Elyria on an actual and philosophical journey away from her unhappy marriage in the States to increasingly alarming adventures in New Zealand. Her choice of refuge was made in response to a casual invitation from a writer encountered at a bookshop event. He has no idea she’s planning to descend on him and she has no particular intentions beyond that descent. When he has had enough of her, and her husband has cancelled all her credit cards, she is left at the mercy of strangers and of food scraps found in dustbins.
On her way she tells us about her childhood with her alcoholic mother and brilliant adopted sister, slowly revealing facts and ideas about the marriage from which she’s fled, about the self and about fear and knowledge. Her voice swings between wide-eyed naïveté, wit, and a compelling percipience, and some of the writing is exceptionally good. One chapter begins: ‘The second thing they tell you about hitchiking is never accept invitations home for tea because tea really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.’
When Elyria is describing how she and her husband watched television soaps, she tells us: ‘And I, like my husband, would rather watch someone else be angry than go through the trouble of my own, so while we watched the women spit and choke each other and the men shout and rub their temples, we felt our own anger dissolve or go numb. We had been angry that the other was angry and even angrier that we were experiencing anger – it was our honeymoon and if we were not exempt from pain, now, we might never be.’
The splurge of Elyria’s thoughts and fears is cleverly rendered, apparently random and chaotic, yet structured to lead us through her past and present towards a future she cannot imagine. I wish that all this skill had been lavished on a woman whose fundamental intention was to create a life that would work for her, but perhaps other readers will share her heroine’s taste for the numbing effect of fictional misery that is even more extreme than their own real distress.