Alison Moore’s fourth novel features a house with more than its fair share of obligatory creaking floorboards, a spare room that the cat and dog refuse to enter, and an eccentric owner, Jessie Noon, who seems at odds with her environment. A ghost story, perhaps? Yet with Moore, material objects are typically used as metaphors for the troubled inner workings of her characters.
Unusual, somewhat disassociated individuals, relatively mundane landscapes and a strong sense of the unheimlich are this writer’s speciality: in her first, Man Booker-shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, a man named Futh takes a walking holiday to Germany, where he is plagued by memories of childhood abandonment.
Her second, He Wants, was described by one reviewer as “a sort of Midlands Death in Venice”, in which Lewis, an elderly widower, has a final, poignant stab at articulating long-suppressed desires.
Moore’s third novel, Death and the Seaside, riffed on Schubert’s melancholic string quartet Death and the Maiden to create a Muriel Spark-like metafiction in which an aspiring author, Bonnie Falls, stuck in a dead-end job and bleak seaside town, finds herself writing her way into a parallel life, with unexpectedly sinister results.
The cultural companion in Missing is DHLawrence, a biography of whom Jessie Noon reads nightly in an attempt to ward off her insomnia and distract herself from the strange sounds emanating from the empty spare room in her house. “In what she had read of his work, there was always a sense of being poised between worlds… The characters… were always torn between staying and leaving, torn between this world, this life, and another.”
The characters in Missing are similarly in limbo, half-presences caught in a different time and place. Jessie herself took flight from her home in the Fens to the Midlands following a family tragedy that occurred when she was a teenager. She is now 49, living a life of monotonous but satisfying routine in a small town in the Scottish Borders, her second husband having walked out the year before, his goodbye message written enigmatically in steam on the bathroom mirror. Her son from her first marriage had left as a teenager, and has never contacted her since.
Jessie, a translator of foreign literature, is always searching for the right word or phrase for the book on which she is currently working. Yet she is also a woeful misinterpreter of communication with others; a peculiar mix of diffidence and uninhibitedness. She writes Christmas cards and sends text messages to people who never reply. She quotes ghost stories at length to total strangers. She is tactless to a point beyond clumsiness. She has, in some ways, never grown up.
It slowly becomes clear that, as with Moore’s first novel, Missing is concerned with early trauma and its lasting, frequently emotionally paralysing effects. It switches between the present day and 1985, the year that Jessie turned 18, when her five-year-old niece Eleanor, the daughter of her older sister, disappeared. In flashback Moore builds a beautifully complete picture of a curious, questing child, her closeness to Jessie, and Jessie’s reaction to Eleanor’s vanishing.
The irrationality of unspoken grief underpins the book, from Jessie’s brief Christmas visit to her now elderly parents’ care home – where, in a bizarre scene, they serve her the equivalent of a children’s birthday tea – to the silent, barely controlled rage of her brother-in-law, and Jessie herself, comatose in an incongruous silver dress on Eleanor’s still-preserved bed after drinking too much at a New Year party.
The novel exudes loneliness and a sense of disintegration. The progression of a hairline crack in Jessie’s kitchen window appears especially fatalistic, as does the constant sighing of the autumn leaves outside her spooky spare room.
In under 200 pages Moore skilfully delivers a twisty, suspenseful story in the manner of a defeatist thriller, full of the reckoning and regret of middle age, nowhere more apparent than in Jessie’s brief, rather excruciating relationship with Robert, a local outreach worker.
During one of their elliptical conversations Jessie asks if he knows the Virginia Woolf short story “A Haunted House”: “The ghosts in it are searching the house for something they left there, and what they find they left in the house is love.” Jessie’s apparently casual comment is a heartfelt plea to be taken notice of and accounted for, and wretchedly indicates who, in this cleverly wrought novel of absences, is the most missing.
Salt, 192pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family