So now I've read a trilogy of books, and in quick succession too, where for reasons various a child is lost.
The most recent Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon, first published in 1981, a best seller made into the film, Without a Trace and recently published by Persephone Books.
Beth my best patchworking friend back in the 1970s (though she doesn't know this) and I gather this is but one of a slew of good novels that she presumably wrote in between the piecing. A lost opportunity for some eighties patchwork on the Persephone endpapers, probably deemed too obvious, and my disappointment slightly assuaged by the late 1970s ribbed knit fabric.
Anyway, today I've used a Baltimore block called Divine Guidance, (cut and sew applique in Liberty Tana Lawn) which seems about right for the subject matter.
Susan Selky, a professor in English at Harvard,(I'd love to read her book on Willa Cather) refuses to believe the worst when her nearly seven year-old son Alex goes missing on his way to school in Boston on May 15th 1980. Susan's marriage to Graham, Alex's father has recently broken down and Graham has left, so perhaps it becomes increasingly imperative that Alex...
'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'
...grows up a little faster. But for whatever reason, Susan and Alex have agreed that he is old enough and sensible enough to be left at the corner to walk the last two blocks to the New Boston School of Back Bay on his own.
On the day that Alex disappears, in fact never makes it to school, Susan doesn't discover his absence until that evening. The police hunt is slow to gain momentum, then massive and the publicity machine cranks into action, then, as time drags on, slowly scales down leaving Susan to function as a mother, with empty arms, without a child but always nurturing hope and often against all the odds.
Assigned to the case the hard-working, very human and long-suffering father of seven, Detective Menetti.
I don't want to linger over the plot a minute longer because there is far too much to give away here, and though there is much to discuss that would be fascinating, to do so would be to forewarn and to reveal the crucial clues to some very surprising twists and turns which Beth Gutcheon keeps very close to her chest . There are some shocks in store too, fairly explicit ones which all made me wonder how this book will be perceived by those perhaps expecting a more traditional and comfortable Persephone read.
Still Missing is much more challenging, courageously out of the ordinary and to be applauded for that. Persephone do this perhaps unnoticed from time to time, subvert expectations and bowl an un-nostalgic googlie to make everyone sit up and pay attention; Manja by Anna Gmeyner comes to mind as another challenging yet brilliant read from them. Still Missing, again unusually for Persephone, comes without the usual introduction or afterword and I suspect it's best left for each reader to write their own.
This book is however about much more than a missing child and I couldn't help but make comparisons to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann three years ago, and which so dominated the news here in the UK.
With the missing child go those hopes and dreams for the future, put on hold yet somehow to be steadily kindled and kept alive, the pain of not knowing barely describable. Madeleine is still missing, her name mentioned much less and yet deeply embedded in the national consciousness, and I don't doubt the steadfastness with which the family trust that she will be found.
Suddenly everyone seems to have a right to the most intimate details of private lives, in Susan Selky's case the lies, the secrets, the uncertainties, the infidelities and Jo Public is suddenly permitted to make judgements and does. God knows for the McCanns it was and still is hideous, blatantly hurtful and frequently incomprehensible.
The depth of public sympathy sadly often rests on the circumstances of the disappearance, the slightest hint of parental culpability perhaps leading to a measuring and rationing of that sympathy. As if any parent ever needs to be told they may have made a wrong call, as if they won't have asked themselves those questions a million times over, and how Susan anguishes over that decision to let Alex walk to school, and suffers, whether real or imagined, the approbation of those around her. How the McCanns must have anguished over their own circumstances.
I'm not sure I understood that pain with quite such a piercing and crystal clarity as I do now.
Susan suffers accordingly when she senses Alex's face may be disappearing from the public eye and her reactions and often desperate coping strategies are both brave and surprising... you might find yourself wincing and doubting, and yes judging on many occasions through this one before you reach the final page, and what a final page.
Still Missing reads like a thriller and I had no idea how Beth Gutcheon was going to bring it to a conclusion that would satisfy. When I got there it left me speechless, so my best advice is allow yourself time to read those final fifty pages in a single sitting; pointless to have anything urgent on the agenda, you'll just forget to do it and you won't be able to say anything coherent afterwards anyway.
The tension builds and builds, layer on layer, often imperceptibly but the psychological pressure is relentless and I hadn't realised quite how closely my breathing must have been mirroring Susan's until the end when I'd almost expired with anxiety and could have used some oxygen.
There are some wonderful touches that locate this book so beautifully in its pre-iPod era, people listening to disco music through transistors strapped to their backs, but much more importantly, to read Beth Gutcheon's book is to understand in some small part, the pain of a parent in this situation, and to a depth that you couldn't possibly come close to knowing unless you had suffered your own version of this anguish.
That's a huge achievement for any book.