Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

“It may be true that one loss helps to prepare 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 Susan Selky could have done to prepare for the breathtaking impact of losing her son.”

That paragraph, on the very first page, made catch my breath and touched my heart. I had to breath again, but the emotion, the concern, that those words created stayed with me as the story unfolded. And they have come back to me again as I am thinking of it.

“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.”

Susan Selky,  a recently divorced English professor, faced her worst nightmare when her son didn’t arrive home from school. She called a friend, whose daughter was in Alex’s class, and learned that he had never arrived at school.

A police investigation begins, family and friends rally round, but days and weeks pass and there is still no trace of Alex.

Eventually the police have no more leads to follow, and there is an acceptance that Alex is lost, probably dead, that he will never be coming home.

Acceptance by everyone but Susan, who will never believe that her son is lost to her and will do anything, absolutely anything, to bring him home.

Her story is extraordinarily vivid. And utterly, frighteningly, real.

It tells of a life consumed by one thing, and of how nothing else matters.

It tells of people who offered wonderful support, and of people who offered harsh judgements.

It tells of the media, and of how attention slipped away when the case was no longer ‘newsworthy’.

It tells of relationships that fractured under pressure, and of relationships that grow with the most unlikely people who were able to understand or to accept.

But, most of all, it tells one mother’s story.

“As the days grew shorter and the chill in the autumn air deepened, the long uneven panes of glass in the living-room were grey with thin frost when Susan went with her coffee cup in the early mornings to sit looking down at the street. From the lush gold and blue, deep as an overturned bowl, of the last morning on earth that she saw her son, the light had changed to the flat grey brightness of impending winter.”

‘Still Missing’ was a difficult book to read. It had to be. It was right that I felt terribly unsettled, and it was right that I was forced to consider my own feelings about what was happening.

I could do that because the characters, their stories, their relationships, were all perfectly drawn.

There were moments when things happened that didn’t feel right. But they were right; answers can’t always be neat and tidy, and politically correct.

What mattered was Susan’s story, and that was painful, emotional, and frustrating at times. But it was pitch perfect, and my attention was held from the first page to the last.

I was surprised when I first saw such a recent book in the Persephone list, but now I have read it I have to say that it’s inclusion makes perfect sense.

Persephone Endpapers

8 responses

    • I’ve never seen this on screen. I can quite believe it would work well but I suspect some of the subtlety must be lost. So do read the book if you can!

  1. I have been meaning to order this in from the library. I think its one of Peresphones more modern ones too isnt it?

    I am going to have to read this as it sounds brilliant if heartbreaking. It made me think that you should read ‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi which was the first Peirene Press novella (forgive me if you already have) as that is a book about parenting with a massive punch.

    • This one dates from 1981, and is that rare thing, a Persephone with an author who is still writing. Brilliant but heartbreaking is exactly right.

      I have read ‘Beside the Sea’ , and yes it is a very valid comparison.

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