Nobody Is Ever Missing takes its title from John Berryman’s ‘Dream Song 29’, a poem which I’d always thought related to Berryman’s strange sense of guilt over his father’s suicide. At the heart of Catherine Lacey’s novel there is another suicide that brings with it enormous pain and grief, that of the heroine Elyria’s adopted sister Ruby, six years earlier.
This is a novel of extremes — to put it mildly — charting Elyria’s slide into a derelict state. It is a witty, knowing and lyrical work that takes as its subject the thoughts and feelings of a woman who has suffered more misery than most humans can take.
The bulk of the novel’s action takes place in New Zealand, but it could happen anywhere. Elyria has fled New York, a job writing soap operas and a marriage to her dead sister’s maths professor on the strength of a casual invitation from a poet called Werner who writes about ‘radical loneliness’ and believes that ‘misery begins in publishing’. On her journey to Werner’s home Elyria encounters many characters, both savoury and unsavoury. One woman tells her to have children soon because when they leave it’s wonderful — in fact, widowhood is where true happiness lies. There are chatty truck drivers from whom an invitation to tea means an invitation to sex, which means — she suspects — an invitation to be murdered. One of these men calls her ‘wifey’. The threat of violence is everywhere. As she places herself in one dangerous situation after another we fear that Elyria’s journey itself will be a long-drawn-out suicide. The inner resources that sometimes also escaped Berryman cannot be marshalled. Everything is missing.
Scraps of domestic arguments fly through Elyria’s mind as she tries to make sense of a husband who is himself floored by grief over his own mother’s suicide. Was it his loss she fell in love with? Some of her imaginings have a Jamesian acuity: ‘I thought hearing him hear my voice would help me become a more accurate version of myself.’ One of the most disturbing descriptions is of Elyria’s husband’s night terrors. He attempts to strangle her in his sleep. In the morning she has marks round her neck. I know you didn’t mean it, she always has to say.
This book won’t tickle everyone. Sometimes I felt that Lacey requires her reader to become the less interesting yet devoted best friend/nursemaid/confidante to Elyria and her rather stylishly expressed troubles. This is a novel, after all, in which a chapter can breezily begin, ‘Another terrible thing….’ But my ungallant feelings soon melted to awe, and compassion for the compelling character that Lacey has created — a woman who is living, as Berryman himself often did, right at the very edge of things.
There is much impressive writing here. Lacey excels at describing the way a shaky soul locates strange meanings everywhere: a man waiting at a luggage carousel has ‘sunlight splintering around him like the painting of a saint’; a bartender makes Elyria feel as though she is his mother, then leads her to lament how he can look so unhappy after all the trouble she has taken bringing him into the world. It helps that the book is sometimes funny: ‘I slept in the metal caravan the way a sardine would if sardines came canned individually.’
If Nobody is Ever Missing occasionally grates or seems precious — there is a long sentence about a library smelling of libraries and the comforting/discomforting nature of the font used for Dewey decimal markings — it still contains a terrific amount of insight into agony and courage, and suffering with style. Berryman, I think, would have been proud.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Susie Boyt is the author of My Judy Garland Life and an authority on Henry James and John Berryman.