Saturday, February 26, 2011

Still Missing - Beth Gutcheon

Five unread Persephones. Which one to choose for Persephone Reading Weekend? Then, a friend from my online reading group said that she had read Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon in just two days & loved it. That was it, decision made! I often seem to use the word unputdownable when I review Persephones. Usually it’s the Dorothy Whipples. I love her characters so much that I stay up late with my eyes propped open to find out what’s going to happen to them. The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sherriff was another compulsive reading experience. I read it on a thundery, stormy Sunday afternoon & the weather suited the book with its feeling of apocalyptic doom. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, one of my very favourite Persephones, was another book I read once in a great rush to find out what would happen & then again, more slowly, to savour the writing & feel the real emotional jolt from the characters & their situation.  

Still Missing is the most involving book I’ve read for ages. I read 150pp in one sitting & I barely drew breath. My stomach was clenched the whole time. If I hadn’t had to get up for work next morning, I think I’d have sat up half the night. I read the rest of the book the next night, nothing would have stopped me getting back to this book. Susan Selky waves goodbye to her six year old son, Alex, one morning. He’s been walking the two blocks to school on his own for a while now & he turns to wave to his mother before he walks around the corner. Alex doesn’t make it to school. Susan doesn’t realise until he doesn’t come home. She rings a friend & discovers from her daughter that Alex wasn’t in school.

Susan calls the police & her life spirals out of control. Her very private life becomes public knowledge. Susan & her husband, Graham, have separated. He is now living with Naomi, one of his young students. Every move Susan makes, everything she says is judged. Her demeanor, her manner, whether she’s calm or hysterical. Al Menetti, the detective in charge of the case, sees this reaction everywhere, even in his own wife,

Uh-huh, thought Menetti. Now it starts. It can’t happen to me. It happened to her, she lost her kid, but if there’s something funny about her, then there’s a reason it could happen to her but it couldn’t happen to me. Now starts the drawing away, the pulling aside, the setting the Selkys apart.

On that first night, as the police investigation gets underway, Graham can’t be found. Menetti & his team initially suspect Graham of kidnapping Alex in a custody battle & precious time & resources are diverted to look for him. Graham has spent the day in bed with a girl he picked up & his guilt and grief about Alex are an important thread in the story although it’s dominated by Susan, her reactions, her point of view. The initial outpouring of support & help from friends & neighbours is overwhelming & comforting. Susan isn’t always easy to help, she finds it hard to do the expected thing & she consumed by Alex, finding Alex,

Susan wondered if she saw in Jocelyn’s eyes a flicker of impatience. She wanted to help me, thought Susan, and if I’d taken her pills, she’d have felt better. How quickly a person in pain whom you can’t help becomes a reproach. And then, no doubt, a thorn.

As the investigation continues, the police move in to Susan’s house, monitoring her phone calls, chasing up any lead, keeping the press at a distance. As the case loses momentum, Susan pursues any clue, however minor. She agrees to appear on television, give interviews, anything to keep Alex present in the mind of the public. Her every move & utterance is judged by complete strangers who feel they have the right to comment on her looks, her demeanour, her parenting skills. Some of them come right out & accuse her in the supermarket or on the street of murdering Alex or of killing him by neglect. Then there are the letters & phone calls from nutters, dreamers & the psychics who seem to offer hope that Alex is alive although they can’t see where he is.

Susan feels enormous guilt about allowing Alex to walk to school although they had talked about strangers & what to do if he was approached by someone on the street. She feels guilty about the breakdown of her marriage, about all the things she did & didn’t say or do, her thoughts go round & round in her head as she struggles to keep hoping that Alex is still alive. As the police presence slows down, this becomes harder,

In the middle of the third week, the police took out their bank of phones, folded their table, and left the house. The taxpayer is entitled to the expense of that kind of search effort for only so long, and Susan had had her allotment. In the sudden quiet that fell on the house as they departed, Susan felt that she was experiencing Alex’s death.

Graham moves back home & they try to comfort each other. Graham comes to believe that Alex is dead & when someone is arrested for Alex’s kidnapping, the case seems to be over. Graham’s way of grieving is not the same as Susan’s,

After the first death, there is no other. But Graham and Susan had lost their child so many times. Graham’s mourning was ferocious, like a man who walks deliberately into the heart of a storm and opens his coat to it and uncovers his head. Susan’s grieving instead seemed to be held inside her, as slow-burning hardwood holds the heat, or a well-tempered carbon knife holds an edge. She had lost her son; she had lost her own youth. Within her, as if in every cell, was something that would never cease to ache. That anguish was all that remained of her son’s life. Her grief, closed within her, was all the grave her son would ever have.

Still Missing was first published in 1981 so in period, it’s not a typical Persephone. The Persephone qualities that this book shares with the more typical Persephone written in the 1920-1950s are the readability of the story & the emphasis on the importance domesticity & the home. Susan’s house is at the centre of the book. It’s her refuge & her prison. It becomes a beacon, a point of familiarity to guide Alex home if he is still alive. It’s the repository of all her memories of Alex. It’s where the story begins & ends. Still Missing is not an easy read but it is a compulsive one. This is one of the most memorable books in the Persephone list.

Persephone Reading Weekend is kindly hosted by Verity & Claire so follow the links to their blogs to catch up on more wonderful reviews by lovers of Persephone. Tomorrow, I’ll share photos of my Persephone collection & post about my first Persephones & how I discovered them.


  1. I heard of Still Missing ages ago and have tried to get to it and failed! I read another book by the same name by Chevy Stevens which was equally good (similar story but adult abduction). My review of that book is up and I hope you would come over and look it up.

  2. I read Still Missing 2 years ago and you're right, it's such an engaging book. So sad and gripping at the same time.

  3. Mystica, I'd be interested in reading your review of the other Still Missing. The Gutcheon SM is also in print in the US, that edition might be easier for you to get hold of. Misha, I was blown away by SM, such a powerfully emotional story.

  4. I agree, this book was absolutely gripping, I think I read the whole thing in one day because I had to find out what happened. Not exactly my favorite Persephone because of the gut-wrenching topic, but it absolutely sucked me in and made me want to keep reading. I want to read Little Boy Lost but I'm afraid it will be just as sad.

  5. Like you, I couldn't put this one down and knowing it was inspired on a real life case made me dread how it would end. Gutcheon really pulls it off though. Looking forward to hearing more about your Persephone collection!

  6. Karen, LBL is compulsive in the same way & it's inevitably sad because of the post-war setting & the theme of lost children but it's one of my favourite books, not just favourite Persephones.ramblingfancy, the sad thing is that it happens over & over again, doesn't it? Children abducted, abused, murdered, the parents judged or pitied. One of the saddest things about SM is how true to life it is.

  7. I thought Still Missing was extraordinary and it provided such an eerie insight into the horror of a child abduction. Susan's unrelenting hope in the face such bleakness was heart-wrenching.

    Thank you for joining us for Persephone Reading Weekend, Lyn.

  8. This sounds a really gripping novel. I was holding my breath just reading your review!

    I will have to look this one out.

  9. This sounds so unPersephone, but if you and Barbara love it, then I'm sure I will! But I discovered I had 27 unread Persephones on my shelves...!!

  10. I read Still Missing when it came out in paper quite a few years ago and I remember it being a gripping reading experience. It's an interesting Persephone choice, but in its own way fits in well with their backlist. The movie of the book is actually pretty good, too.

  11. Simon, what with your unread Persephones & Whipples, you could read nothing but middlebrow novels for years! Dani, I was initially surprised by Nicola's choice of SM for Persephone but it has some elements in common with the thrillers they've published as well as the domestic novels & of course the themes of women's experiences.

  12. This sounds like a very sad book. Somehow that scares me a little? I do want to read it, but I might save it for a time later on in life.