Missing persons

<strong>In Search of the Missing Eyelash</strong>

Karen McLeod <em>Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £11.99</e

Karen McLeod's debut, In Search of the Missing Eyelash, is a sensitive, ferocious and very funny inquiry into the number and nature of calamities required before we accept that there are limits to the amount of control we have over our own lives. Yet this is not a story that counsels resignation to fate; the limits that the novel's protagonist, Lizzie, pokes at are those that begin at the points where we connect to the people we love. Sally, the woman who swept Lizzie off her feet and kept her midair for nine whole weeks, has just left Lizzie for a man with a fat neck. Sally is now "acting like she never cared", and that makes Lizzie hurt like crazy.

Lizzie's pain sweeps through the novel, twisting itself into different forms. There is fixation: "Sally is swirling around my head making me feel drunk." There is bewildered regret: "However hard I try I always cook for four, which makes me ask, who are the other three people I'm cooking for?" The wry, self-medicinal humour inherent in heartbreak isn't forgotten, either: "Before leaving the house I threw three wine glasses on the floor one by one until I felt better. I had to get the Hoover out before I left though, wincing at the thought of a shard of glass in my foot."

Another gap in Lizzie's life has to do with her brother Simon, who has been missing for three months. The poster outside the police station says that he "left home after a family dispute", but Lizzie understands that Simon is hiding because he is "afraid the world will reject him, which it will, because she did". "She" is their mother, who, having rejected Simon's formal assumption of his female personality, Amanda, is also gone without a trace.

Initially, Lizzie tries to assemble a new self out of these blanks in her life, playing detective and keeping surveillance on Sally's new relationship in the hope of being the first to see the cracks. Lizzie also visits and revisits her empty family home as if in search of clues to the future of the unit that once lived in it. With guilt, she recalls an occasion on which Simon pointed himself out in a family photo and said of the jeans, the white shirt and the strained smile: "You know that's not me, don't you?" Lizzie's response was a knee-jerk one, born of a weak swimmer's assessment of deep water: "Don't be stupid, of course that's you." Only belatedly does Lizzie realise the extent to which she helped feed her brother's fear of rejection.

But Lizzie is disappearing, too. She has put on weight - so much that she can't recognise herself: "My legs are like sausages near to bursting in a dimpled skin that is too tight . . . I can't remember how I'd got so fat or when it started or when I wasn't." The unease that these changes produce doesn't stop Lizzie from eating. But her eating patterns get stuck in a weird place between perfunctory chomping simply for nourishment and the lavish shame of über-comfort eaters. She becomes the girl who heats up ready-to-bake garlic baguettes and then, "not able to wait for it to drip down my face", dips her "tongue into the semi-frozen centre of the bread".

Insecurity (or something like it) makes Lizzie go through the motions of attraction to a girl she doesn't really want to be involved with; then, later, more of the same with another girl: mild and cringeworthy experiments in wanting to be wanted. The cringes produced are the good ones that come with appreciating a situation of utter dread recognisably rendered. But the reader doesn't escape from Lizzie's agony unburned. The laughs and cringes almost suggest that Lizzie is coping until you realise that she really is not. Her mind is so busy trying to build something new out of her separation from her family and her lover that her body echoes it, and she suffers the distress of a phantom pregnancy.

How to climb back up from zero and heal a broken heart? Lizzie does it thus: she continues to love Sally even after Sally has left her, she keeps loving even though Sally couldn't care less. She takes out the batteries in her radio because, in that state of mulish loving, every song means something to her. Then the fever breaks and Lizzie is able to reset her heart, as you would a watch, maybe, or an explosive. Getting her brother back proves to be a much simpler yet more difficult matter - it is done by accepting the beauty of the fact that, at his realest self, Simon is her sister.