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.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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Why Theresa May is wrong about immigration

The inconvenient truth: migration helps Britain.

Immigration is a disaster. Well, Theresa May says so, anyway.

May’s speech to the Conservative conference is straight out of the Ukip playbook – which is rather curious, given that she has held the post of Home Secretary for five years, and is the longest-serving holder of the office for half a century. It is crass and expedient tub-thumping (as James Kirkup has brilliantly exposed). And what May is saying is not even true. These are saloon-bar claims, and it is striking that she should unleash them on the Conservative party conference.

“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” May says. Yet, whatever she might say, racism is on the decline. The BNP’s vote in the general election collapsed from 563,000 in 2010 to just 1,667 in 2015. Research by Rob Ford has revealed that the nation is becoming far more tolerant to marriage between races: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. And between 2011 and 2014 (when the figure was last measured), the British Social Attitudes Survey reported a decrease in self-reported racial prejudice, from 38 to 30 per cent.

May also said: “at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” This is another claim that does not stand up. An OECD study two years ago found that the net contribution of immigrants is worth over £7bn per year to UK PLC: money that would otherwise have to be found through higher taxes, lower spending or more borrowing.

May also asserted that “We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” This ignores the evidence of her own department, who have found “relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.” An LSE study, too, has found “no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services.”

The inconvenient truth is that rising net migration is both proof of, and a reason why, the UK economy is doing well. As immigration has increased, so has growth; employment has risen, including for Britons. This is no coincidence.

To win the “global race”, a country needs to attract skilled immigrants who work hard and put in more than they take out. That is exactly what the UK is doing: net migration has just risen to 330,000, a new record. As a whole these migrants “are better educated and younger than their UK-born counterparts”, as an LSE study has found. In the UK today there is a simple rule: where immigration is highest, growth is strongest. The East Coast and Cornwall suffer from a lack of migration, while almost 40 per cent of a immigrants live in the thriving capital.

Lower immigration would make the UK a less dynamic economy. Firms in London enjoy a “diversity bonus”: those with an ethnically diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations, and are better-able to reach international markets, a paper by Max Nathan and Neil Lee has found.

Puling up the drawbridge on immigration would have catastrophic consequences for UK PLC. The OBR have found that with zero net-migration, public sector net debt as a share of GDP could rise to 145 per cent by 2062/63; with high net-migration, it would fall to 73 per cent.

So May should be celebrating that the UK is such an attractive place to live, and how immigration has contributed to its success. By doing the opposite, she not only shows a lack of political leadership, but is also stoking up trouble for the Prime Minister – and her leadership rival George Osborne – during the EU referendum.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.