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 he corner, he apparently disappeared from the face of the earth.
That, in a nutshell, is the basic story of Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon (published by Persephone), but there's much more to it than that. It explores the effect of Alex's disapearance on his mother Susan, and its impact on her relationships with her ex-husband Graham and his new wife, and on her friends and neighbours – and the way they react. Then there's the effect the case has on Al Menetti, the detective in charge of the case, and his family, as he becomes obsessed with finding the missing boy.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Susan in the weeks that followed Alex's disappearnce was that she gradually came to see the world as the police saw it.
As the investigation proceeds old secrets and betrayals are revealed: Susan's best friend once slept with Graham; another friend is a junkie, and a neighbour has been accused of child molestation but never convicted. Her world, hitherto so safe and secure, is torn apart as she learns what paedophiles do to young boys, and her trust in people is broken. At one stage she tells relatives, in confidence, that a new development is expected – but the news is leaked to a paper which jeopardises the inquiry by splashing an untrue story claiming the case is solved.
Events take a bizarre turn when Susan's male cleaner is found to be living under an assumed identity after serving time in jail for raping a young boy, and he is charged with the abduction and murder of her son. Susan is convinced of his innocence, but the Gay Rights movement are wary of supporting his cause in the climate of homophobic hysteria which follows the arrest.
Susan spends her days in a kind of fog, unable to cope with the everyday demands of life, haunted by fear that that when people leave her she wil never seem them again. But she steels herself to cope with reporters, tv preseners, psychics, hoaxers who provide false hope through misinformation, letters from well-wishers, and letters from people who launch personal attacks on her – one even writes that she is glad for what happened because she thinks Susan is a bad mother.
And there are phone calls from parents of other missing children, offering a network of support, but unable to engage with people as they remain locked in their own private grief and horror, retelling their stories over and over again.
The suspicion and fear which arise when Alex vanishes are utterly believable, and the way the community rallies round to help search for him is heart-warming but, sadly, people soon forget and carry on with their lives. No-one quite knows what to say to Susan, or how to treat her – it's not like a death, where there is a body, and people can grieve and move on.
The only person during all those weeks who seemed to preserve a sense of Susan as a normal person was Margaret. She had a knack of being supportive witout passing judgement, sympahetic without being sentimental. She made it clear that laughing once in a while didn't mean giving up one's faith, and if Susan needed to cry, she knew the difference between comforting her and demanding that she stop.
It turns out that Maragret, a neighbour, has been through this herself, for years earlier one of her daughters disappeared and was never found.
Susan never loses her belief that her son is still alive, and throughout the novel we get glimpses of him as she remembers the way he looks, the way he moves, the way he speaks, the things he likes to do, his favourite food...
We've all read newspaper stories about missing children and watched emotional appeals from tearful parents on television, but this novel brings it all to life. I couldn't honestly say I liked it, though I'm not sure why – it's not really my type of book, and I do tend to shy away from contemporary novels, especially if they are too realistic (actually, I'm not sure I can describe a novel published in 1981 as contemporary, but I'm sticking with that terminology).
However, it is beautifully written, in lovely, spare, unsentimental prose, and portrays a shocking event and the difficult (and often controversial) issues that arise with great sensitivity. The characters are sympathetically drawn, and the story unfolds so gradually, with a drip-feed of information, that I actually got a sense of how slowly things move along in a case like this, which was rather refreshing, because often stories involving police investigation hurtle along at an impossibly breakneck speed, with all the action condensed into a few days. But this isn't a conventional crime novel. In fact, I don't know that you could call it a crime novel at all – it's about the effects of a crime rather than the crime itself. It's about loss, and about a mother, and how she feels, and how she copes when the unimaginable becomes a reality and her child disappears.