Catherine Lacey's debut novel explores that deeply human question — for many, a passing thought; for others, more nagging: "What if I were to suddenly change the course of my life?" Stuck in routines that feel rote or relationships withering on the vine, one may harbor the dream of inhabiting another life entirely.
Such is the case for Elyria, the narrator of "Nobody Is Ever Missing." A staff writer for a CBS soap opera, she lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband (called "Husband"), a math professor at Columbia University. The real drama of her life, the unsolvable problem, is how to leave it.
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Are she and Husband married in any true sense, she wonders, or merely in "a continuous situation with each other"? Their lives first intersected after Elyria's adopted sister, Ruby, a teaching assistant of his, took her life by leaping from the window of a women's room at college. Sitting in a university police station, he informs Elyria that he was the last one to speak with Ruby (whose name, like a few other elements in the novel, is too ostentatiously symbolic: a precious stone; the color of the shoes Dorothy clicked to get home), and that his mother committed suicide in a similar way. They forge an immediate bond over "irrevocable losses." It's not until they're married and going through the motions of married life that Elyria realizes she fell in love with that loss, not the man himself:
I wondered if my want to get up and leave him was an indigenous want, something I had birthed, or whether this want was foreign, a splinter, something to pry out.
There's a matter-of-factness to the way Elyria makes her unannounced escape: She wakes up one morning, waits to hear the front door close, puts on her backpack and hops on a one-way flight to New Zealand (by way of a bar for a double bourbon). A writer she met once at a cocktail party had encouraged her to visit his farm on the South Island, a casual invitation on which she hinges all her plans. But when Elyria arrives in the far-flung country, it becomes clear that, beyond the leaving part and the ending-up-at-a-stranger's-farm part, she's not at all prepared.
As she aimlessly drifts across New Zealand — hitchhiking, meeting eccentric characters, dozing off in fields and parks — Elyria flashes back to memories of her sister, dead six years, who is always at the forefront of her mind:
(I) don't know that magic trick that other people seem to know — how to dissolve a sense of loss, how to unbraid it from a brain.
She wonders about her husband, too, also increasingly gone to her, but for whom she can shed no tears. Which is not to say she doesn't feel. Elyria gives a name to her rage over life's fragility and futility: "wildebeest." It calls to mind the speech Paul Varjak gives Holly Golightly at the end of the film adaptation of "Breakfast at Tiffany's": "You call yourself a free spirit, a 'wild thing,' and you're terrified somebody's gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself. ... It's wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself."
Less a trip to an island country and more a fraught journey deeper and deeper into the isolation of a deteriorating mind, "Nobody Is Ever Missing" underscores the truth of the adage "Wherever you go, there you are." Despite stitching together a new life halfway around the world, Elyria still wrestles with wanting to be "the thing running far from me instead of sewn inside myself forever."
Lacey's writing is a tumult of run-on sentences: assured, poetic, unspooling with intensity. She holds the reader rapt for 244 pages, vividly situating us — entrapping us, really — in the brain of someone whose thoughts and actions are increasingly less stable. It could be exhausting to inhabit such a mind (for both writer and reader), but the immediacy and inventiveness of Lacey's prose makes it invigorating.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
"Nobody Is Ever Missing"
By Catherine Lacey, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 244 pages, $14 paperback