Alison Moore’s Booker shortlisted first novel The Lighthouse has been described as ‘a simple tale but difficult to explain’, which would also be a pretty fair evaluation of Missing, which is her fourth, and is a tricky one to pin down. Having got that out of the way, and hopefully having sufficiently lowered your expectations, here goes my attempt.
The protagonist of Missing is Jessie Noon, literary translator, introduced to us in the act of translating a book of short stories.
“In each of the stories … there was a failure to connect, and the endings seemed to hang in the air; they were barely endings at all.”
Jessie’s husband took off one morning leaving a vague message written in steam on the bathroom mirror, she has a grown up son who doesn’t even reply to texts, and she lives alone. She might trip over the cat, she thinks, falling to her death and not being found until the smell escapes the confines of the house. Jessie, pushing fifty, approaches life with fatalism bordering on apathy, an attitude encouraged by the rest of her family who seem to treat her like an overgrown child.
As Missing plots its course, Jessie works on her translations, microwaves portions of batch-cooked food, and drifts into a relationship with the incompatible sounding Robert (whose jaw tightens when he spills his tea). Meanwhile, via flashbacks, tragedy is hinted at, alluded to and finally revealed. Jessie was slow to react, it seems, in the vital moments when it is crucial to act. She is similarly unreactive when postcards begin to arrive.
“When she came downstairs at lunchtime, she found a postcard on the doormat. I’m on my way home, it said. ‘Now you’re coming,’ she said to the postcard, ‘after all this time.’ She did not know what to do with it. In the end, she propped it up on the windowsill behind the kitchen sink, and spoke to it each time she ran the tap.”
The plain, uncomplicated phrases seem innocuous enough, but what they amount to is something that permeates your consciousness in the same stealthy way that drizzle pretends not to be raining until you find that you’re soaking wet.
At first reading it does seem simple: so much that had I not been reading it for review I might have been tempted to say meh and move on. But the more thought I gave it, the more complex the thing became. You want Jessie to take control of her life and do something proactive, but when she finally does (possibly – since the ending seems to hang in the air somewhat) the potential consequences are terribly sad.
Any Cop?: If you like your fiction dismal, melancholy and multi-layered, this is for you. If that all sounds too depressing, you might want to bear in mind something the author wrote in an article some time ago: ‘Where stories of mine culminate in suggested brutality, I … like to think there is always an alternative ending in which the protagonist receives cake.’