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Still Missing

by Beth Gutcheon

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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, 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 said: ‘Haunting, harrowing and highly effective… a stunning shocker of an ending…It strings out the suspense to the almost unendurable.’

And this is what the Times Literary Supplement wrote: ‘The intense brooding quality of the narrative is a result of Beth Gutcheon’s conviction that what happens in her fiction could happen in fact to any American mother living in a big city. The anguish inflicted on Susan Selky is something even all-American moms must be prepared for.... Alex is, though diminutive, the Big Man, and his conspicuous absence is what determines the tone of the book. As just another schoolkid Alex attracted little attention but as a potential victim he is transformed, he becomes a celebrity worthy of the attention of the media and of so-called friends. Susan finds there are other males in her life besides Alex and all of them inadequate. Although in no sense a feminist novel, this book is littered with asides which suggest an intelligent woman being taken for granted in a society that still demands a degree of conformity from a damsel or even career-woman in distress. Enough, as Susan Selky is repeatedly advised, is enough. Beth Gutcheon has borrowed the crude framework of the thriller and used it as the basis of an elaborately patterned study of an individual response to extreme psychological pressure. This novel has a disturbing theme and a strange cast of characters: the humanity of the finished product is a tribute to Beth Gutcheon’s considerable artistry.’

Still Missing was chosen by Rachel Johnson on Radio 4's A Good Read here

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.

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Categories: Thrillers    Woman and Home    America   
 

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