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Still Missing

by Beth Gutcheon
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87 88 89


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A Well Full of Leaves
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384pp
ISBN 9781903155783

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon, b.1945, was first published in both America and Britain in 1981. It is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it a detective story? It is in fact written in the spare, direct style of a thriller. There is no way to define this extraordinary book except perhaps by quoting the opening section:

‘You could hardly get to age thirty-four without learning something about loss. By thirty-four you’re bound to have lost your Swiss Army knife, your best friend from fourth grade, your chance to be centre forward on the starting team, your hope of the Latin prize, quite a few of your illusions, and certainly, somewhere along the line, some significant love. Susan Selky had in fact recently lost an old battle, for her marriage to the man she was in love with, and with it, many ancillary dreams of more babies, and of holding his hand in the dark when they were old.

‘It may be that one loss helps to prepare you for the next, at least in developing a certain rueful sense of humour about things you’re too old to cry about. There’s plenty of blather, some of it true, about turning pain into growth, using one blow to teach you resilience and to make you ready for the shock of the next one. But the greater truth is that life is not something you can go into training for. There was nothing in life that Susan Selky could have done to prepare for the breathtaking impact of losing her son.

‘Susan Selky, bright, loyal, stubborn, shy. If you knew her professionally, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that whatever accomplished forays she made daily outside, she thought with relief of her narrow brick house on Fremont Street as if it were a shell. Inside, dumb and unguarded as a mollusk was the heart of life, her private days and nights with Alex.

‘Alexander Graham Selky, Jr., age 6 & 3/4, a freelance spaceman. A small, sturdy child with a two-hundred-watt smile and a giggle like falling water, a child who saw Star Wars once with Mommy, twice with Daddy, and once again with TJ. Owner-trainer of Taxi, an oversized Shetland sheepdog.

‘Alex Selky, going on seven, so eager to grow up, kissed his mother goodbye on their front steps on the hot bright morning of May 15 1980, and marched himself down the street on his way to the New Boston School of Back Bay, two blocks from his corner. He never arrived at school, and from the moment he turned the corner, he apparently disappeared from the face of the earth.’

Still Missing was widely reviewed, was made into a film (Without a Trace), was a bestseller and is still in print in America: inexplicably, however, it had not been in print in the UK since the 1990s. This is what the New York Times’s reviewer wrote: ‘Love is hard enough to write about, but a parent’s love for a child is almost inexpressible in its universality and in the uneventfulness of its nature under ordinary circumstances. When Alex disappears, Susan, his mother, doesn’t just lose a little boy. She loses the most essential part of herself, a piece of her own person-hood; without Alex she has no purpose and no future. Perhaps this can only be understood through a child’s absence – an unnatural cessation like a stopped heart. Given the novel’s painful beginning I wondered how Miss Gutcheon could keep up such an intense emotional pitch. But keep it up she does, and, most impressively, without ever letting Susan slip from our sympathies by believing too much or too little in the likelihood of Alex’s reappearance. She keeps believing, without caring what anybody else thinks, simply because nothing else is possible to her.

‘Susan is strong and warm, the mother we all wish we had or could be. Her friends, relatives and ex-husband, Graham, Alex’s father, show their true natures – some not so pleasant – as grief isolates and distorts her. Susan, obsessed, listens to every psychic, subjects her friends to lie-detector tests and embraces the media ­television crews camped outside her Boston house – with the clear tunnel vision of the mad: never mind that she is being exploited, because somewhere some reader or viewer might help her find her son.

‘Desperate to find him, his mother begins a vigil that lasts for days, then weeks, then months. She is treated first as a tragic figure, then as a grief-crazed hysteric, then as an unpleasant reminder of the bad fortune that can befall us all. Against all hope, despite false leads and the desertions of her friends and allies, she believes with all her heart that somehow, somewhere, Alex will be found alive.’

The US Publisher’s Weekly called the book ‘Haunting, harrowing and highly effective… a stunning shocker of an ending…It strings out the suspense to the almost unendurable.’

Also available as a Persephone e-book.

Endpaper

A ribbed knit fabric made of durene, polyester and silk slub sprinkled with gold metallic, late 1970s.


Read What Readers Say

Harriet Gilbert on ‘BBC Radio 4 - A Good Read’

The most page-turning novel. But what I find interesting is that we can all describe this as a page-turner when it is about something unimaginably painful.

Stephanie Cross, ‘The Lady’

A quite remarkable book. It is a novel so gripping and completely imagined that you dread putting it aside…. Yet this is not a thriller, although it will have you hooked. Nor is it (as it could so easily have been) an enervating study in emotional torture and suspended lives. At the end of ‘Still Missing’, you feel less as though you have shared an ordeal with Susan than accompanied her through something that is almost beyond words: quiet, profound and life-altering. The secret is Gutcheon’s style: she is, it seems, a fundamentally interested author, genuinely keen to know how her characters feel and will react. This is not to say she is unsophisticated – just the reverse – but that her book is somehow brightly alert to itself. Flaubert thought that the author should be everywhere and nowhere in his work; Gutcheon, marvellously, seems present on every page. All the expected elements of a missing-child story are here, the twists, the turns, the ending that is perfect and piercing.

Zoe Somerville via Instagram

‘Still Missing’ was recommended to me by the lovely bookseller at Persephone. It tells the story of Alex Selky who goes missing one morning in Boston and the agony his mother goes through. It’s an understandably heart-rending read but deals with the aftermath so truthfully, so thoughtfully and so unflinchingly that in no way did it feel mawkish or sentimental or indeed manipulative. I strongly identified with Susan here and I thought the cop character was well portrayed too, as were the more minor characters. It was written in the 1980s and there are attitudes towards homosexuality that feel really obnoxious but as I said it’s unflinching and I think it probably reflects attitudes of the time. This is such a powerful book and made me cry but hats off to Beth Gutcheon for creating something so visceral and true.

Categories: America Mothers Thrillers Woman and Home

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