In our recent podcast with Helen McClory the subject of literary fiction, and what makes it so special, arose. You can still hear the full discussion by listening here, but a brief summary of the conclusion of the conversation is that it is in literary fiction where the human condition is best explored, and more fully understood, with a depth and resonance which is almost impossible in other art forms where such exploration is more fleeting. You may disagree with that assertion, but when it works at its best literature inspects shared human experience and gives us a better understanding of what that means.
Alison Moore’s latest novel Missing fulfils the above criteria, and proves to be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Told in an apparently straightforward and deceptively modest manner, the emotional punch it delivers is all the more significant because of it. The best writers never allow style to overcome substance. Even those who experiment with the form, such as Joyce with Ulysses, or Gray with Lanark, are looking at what it means to be human, to live. Jessie Noon is living her late 40s in the Scottish Borders with her cat, dog, a large collection of books, and possibly a ghost. But Jessie is haunted more by her past rather than what resides in the spare room, and her inability to come to terms with that past is apparently preventing her from moving forward. However, Moore understands that life is rarely that straightforward.
Memory is examined as Jessie recalls the day and event which has come to define her, for herself and for others, and which unfolds in flashback chapters throughout the book. The belief that we create our own identities, and also the idea of free-will, are challenged. Can an individual’s actions be described as free when the constraints, expectations and disapprobation such as that placed upon Jessie have the effect they do? You may argue that one should care less about such things, but if we accept that we give up some freedoms as part of a social contract, then they become an intrinsic part of that society when that contract appears to be broken. If, through an action or an outcome, a person becomes a pariah then how they continue to act must surely be altered by this assigned role.
However, that is a misleading and over simplified reading. As we meet Jessie her husband has recently walked out on her, and we discover she hasn’t seen her son in years. Are these situations essentially linked to the earlier event? Or has it provided Jessie with a rational explanation when life takes a wrong turn? Is she simply fulfilling the role which others have assigned her – “a disappointment”, “a failure”, “doomed”? However, if this is how others see her, and if she does at times herself, then it is not how the reader sees her. Written with understanding and insight, Jessie is doing more than simply existing as she continues to try to find meaning in her mid-life, and while her regrets and fears are made clear she still has hope for the future.
Jessie works as a translator. She loves language and how it can be used, and is always careful to choose the right words, so it is ironic that she has problems communicating with others – with being understood, or just being heard in the first place, her meaning lost in translation. One of her favourite books is Camus’ The Outsider, (she owns many copies), which is a prime example of a novel examining moral action, personal responsibility, guilt, and regret, and Moore looks at all of these with reference to Jessie’s life, but also how the ends often overshadow the means, no matter the intentions behind the latter.
There are few things better than a novel which surprises you, which catches you unaware and makes you think about the world and yourself in a different way. Missing had just such an effect – as artful and emotional a book as I have read in some time. This is beautiful writing, eschewing the need to give reasons and explanations for what occurs, letting the reader come to their own conclusions. It’s not a novel which asks for sympathy, but one which offers empathy, in a manner not dissimilar to Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. If you are already aware of Alison Moore’s writing, (her first novel The Lighthouse made the Man Booker shortlist in 2012 and she has had many other accolades) the quality of Missing will not surprise you, but if you aren’t then be prepared to be knocked out.