Image Credit: Granta, 2015
I first came across Nobody Is Ever Missing when reading a review on Goodreads. It had given the novel two stars and simply put ‘this book is more depressing than The Bell Jar’, which is all it took for me to order it.
Nobody Is Ever Missing follows the story of Elyria or ‘Elly’. In her late twenties she decides to up and leave her stable but unfulfilling life in New York and buy a one-way ticket to New Zealand. Without telling anyone, including her husband, she leaves one morning saying ‘nothing is clear or easy to me anymore’.
Named after a line in the John Berryman poem ‘Dream Song 29’, Nobody Is Ever Missing was Catherine Lacey’s debut novel published in 2014. More than a clichéd tale of someone searching for something they ultimately find they had within themselves all along, this book is far more inconclusive; if you like stories with neat endings then avoid this one.
Much of the plot of the novel takes place in Elly the narrator’s head. Her experiences of hitch-hiking and sleeping rough across New Zealand are interlaced with her memories of the life she left behind. Through these memories we begin to piece together the factors that drove Elly to leave in the first place from her misguided marriage to an older man, the suicide of her adopted sister and her strained relationship with her mother.
Rather than travelling to ‘find herself’, Elly is instead desperately trying to escape herself. In the dichotomy of fight or flight, Elly is definitely a flyer. Rather than come to terms with the fact that she can change the past just about as much as she can predict the future, Elly instead despairs with her life and starts to run from it.
As our narrator spirals deeper into her subconscious, she begins to realise how easily she can hide her true feelings and past experiences from those she meets on her travels and even her husband during their occasional phone calls. Yet despite how well she may be able to hide from others, she still cannot escape herself.
Throughout the novel, Elly is warned by the people she meets of the dangers of travelling alone and the risks involved in taking lifts from strangers. But Elly is so desensitised, so lost in her own mind that she cannot fully appreciate these warnings.
Nothing about this novel is romanticised. In fact, in many ways it does the opposite. It paints a picture of marriage without the romance, travel without the glamour and families without any glimpse of functionality.
Elly exists between two ideals. She was not settled and content with her married life in New York, yet neither is she satisfied being free to explore and travel alone. Rather she is perpetually confined by her feelings of having gotten something wrong, of having not ended up with the life she planned and feeling it is too late to go back now:
‘Isn’t everyone on the planet or at least everyone on the planet called me stuck between the two impulses of wanting to walk away like it never happened and wanting to be a good person in love, loving, being loved, making sense, just fine?’
In fairness, Nobody Is Ever Missing does have its similarities with The Bell Jar. However, I did not find it depressing. It was disarming, Lacey charms you with gentle humour and poetic turns of phrase and then hits you with raw emotions, high-risk behaviour and a portrait of someone very much lost.