Fiction – paperback; Granta; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I must admit to getting a bit tired of reading contemporary novels about marriages gone wrong which are told entirely from the wife’s angst-ridden perspective — think Hausfrau and Dept. Of Speculation — but Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing is cut from (slightly) different cloth.
Running away to the other side of the world
For a start, there’s no sex in this novel, there’s no affair, indeed there doesn’t appear to be any good reason as to why the narrator, Elyria, would want to leave her stable life in Manhattan to do something totally unpredictable, irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s what she does. She buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand, presumably to get as far away from her husband as possible, and tells no one of her plans. She doesn’t even leave a note.
On the other side of the world, with little more than a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it to guide her, she hitchhikes from the north island to the south, having mini adventures and escapades along the way, until she lands at the farm she intended to find. Here, she moves in with Werner, a writer she once met in Manhattan, who casually invited her to stay in his extra room if she ever wanted to visit New Zealand.
Their relationship is purely platonic — she tends his garden in exchange for room and board — until she overstays her visit and is asked, quite forcefully, to move on. From there, Elly’s adventure descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her current and her future.
A hyperactive voice
What I liked most about this book was Elly’s voice — it’s hyperactive, energised and full of mordant humour — reflected in breathless prose characterised by long, convoluted sentences that loop back on themselves or unfurl into unexpected directions. The following is a good example:
What I meant was I knew I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do, which was leaving the adult way, the grown-up way, stating the problem, filling out the paperwork, doing all those adult things, but I knew that wasn’t the whole problem, that I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband, but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history; I was being pushed by currents, by unseen things, memories and imaginations and fears swirled together — this was one of those things you figure out years later but it’s not the kind of thing you can explain to an almost stranger in a broom closet while you’re mostly drunk and you barely know where you are or why you are there or why some people can smell secrets.
For much of the novel Elly is trying to figure stuff out, so what you get is a kind of mental diarrhea on the page, full of her thoughts and insights spilled out without any kind of filter. What she thinks and what she does often reveals her alarmingly naivety, but there are occasional flashes of brilliance that show she’s mature beyond her years.
And while you could bill Nobody is Ever Missing as a road adventure, it’s more akin to a psychological journey in which the narrator tries to find herself without going completely mad. It’s occasionally frustrating to see her repeat mistakes over and over, or to think about the same things continually, and I admit that by the time I’d got half way through this book I was finding Elly’s company more of a chore than a joy. Indeed, once she’d reached Werner’s farm I was bored with the whole damn adventure and wish she’d just get back on that plane and save her marriage.
But it’s worth hanging in there. That’s because the author cleverly holds back key bits of information, so we’re never quite sure of Elly’s motivations until little revelations get dropped in and you begin to understand some of what is going on. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time too, inline with Elly’s memories, so that a disjointed picture begins to build up of her past life in New York where she made a living as a writer on a soap opera and married a mathematics professor much older than herself.
Key to all this — her current state of mind, her crumbling marriage, her desire to find herself — is the suicide of her adopted sibling, which runs like a refrain throughout the entire story, which is as much about loss (and grief) as it is about the search for meaning.
All up, I enjoyed (and admired) Nobody is Ever Missing. It’s very much about what it is to be human, to love and to be loved, and how important it is to find a place for ourselves in a complex world where nothing stays the same for very long.