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? I want to be that person, part of a respectable people, but I also want nothing to do with being people, because to be people is to be breakable, to know that your breaking is coming, any day now…
Continuing in the vein of Fates and Furies, or books-that-are-probably-not-helpful-for-me-to-be-reading-right-now-but-yet-are-somehow-incredibly-comforting-and-exactly-what-I-need-to-be-reading-right-now, comes Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, in which Elyria leaves her husband and her middle-class New York life to take a one-way flight to New Zealand. From Auckland she hitchhikes her way down the length of the North Island heading towards a farm in the South, where a stranger once offered she was always welcome to come and stay. We follow her on her travels and in her thoughts, anxieties and decisions through a often rapid-paced stream-of-consciousness narration, which, like the character of Elyria is sometimes exhausting, sometimes alienating, but also equally sympathetic and intoxicatingly honest.
Elyria’s decision to fly to the other side of the world is initially sparked by a desire for space. Elyria met her husband, a college professor, through the death of her adopted sister Ruby and it is years later that Elyria begins to realise how grief-stricken she remains and how much of her marriage is wrapped up in this. It’s a familiar feeling of momentum at a life being lived beyond our own control — suddenly one day we look at where we are, what we’re doing and what we’ve become and wonder how it came to be this way. How do we push against a force so strong that is dragging us in directions we never dreamed of? How do we begin to change ourselves and our life when everything around us is pushing us in the same direction we realise is causing us pain? Sometimes we just need somewhere to hide, somewhere away from the drift, to stop and take a deep breath or reflect or just cry without it be loaded by the reactions of those around us.
My favourite thing about airport security is how you can cry the whole way through and they’ll only try to figure out whether you’ll blow up. They’ll still search you if they want to search you. They’ll still try to detect metal on you. They’ll still yell about laptops and liquids and gels and shoes, and no one will ask what’s wrong because everything is already wrong, and they won’t look twice at you because they’re only paid to look once. And for this, sometimes, some people are thankful.
The authenticity of Nobody Is Ever Missing is not only confined to the desire for change, the pervasiveness of grief or the feeling of vulnerability within the identity of ourselves as well as ourselves within a relationship; Lacey also perfectly captures the essence of New Zealand. The two years I spent living in the North Island felt like it bounced off the page at me as I read this novel. The calm pace, the rolling hills, the green ferns, the rugged coast, the crisp air, but also the insularity, the standoffishness of cynical locals, the roadkill that lines the break between the human and the natural, the isolation. As Elyria sits alongside the drivers who have stopped for her we are given perfect little snapshots into the personality of the country and it’s people. The well-worn phrase that every local spouts to outsiders ‘it’s God’s country’, the vernacular of farmers and their belief that the soil is a gift, the ease at which people will help you but also question why you’ve put yourself in that position to begin with — the first question asked of Elyria was also the first question I was asked by anyone new for two years: ‘why are you here?’ And although by the end of my time there I was ready to leave, this novel reminded me of what I loved about New Zealand — the stillness, the quiet, the way the moist air leaves droplets on bright green ferns and weighs down the sky to force you to slow down:
There are still a lot of nice places like this this, you know, even though lots of other things have gone wrong. You’re not in a hurry to get to the South Island, are you?
It seemed to take a reason to be in a hurry and I didn’t have any reasons, I knew, and maybe that was it, maybe I had come to New Zealand to find a reason in this quiet country where everyone was happily waiting on almost nothing, to wait with them until a reason found me or I found a reason.
The narrative style is often piercing in honesty and vulnerability. Lacey takes us right into the mind of Elyria and in doing so reflects back our own fears and desires. The desire for quietness versus the fear of loneliness. The desire for space versus the fear of being forgotten. And the desire as a woman to be strong, independent and fearless, versus the very real and ever-present fear for safety. Elyria is never more aware of this than while standing on the side of the road, alone, waiting for someone to stop:
Up close, I was not so promising: just a woman wearing a backpack, a cardigan, green sneakers. And young-seeming, of course, because you must seem young to get away with this kind of vulnerability, standing on a road’s shoulder, showing the pale underside of your arm. You must seem both totally harmless and able, if necessary, to push a knife through a tender gut.
I completely adored this book, but I also found it exhausting. The raw emotion of the protagonist is equally spell-binding and draining. At a time where I am exhausted from an emotional few months, I could empathise with a lot of Elyria’s narration, but I also had to distance myself from it a little, picking up the book for a few chapters at a time only, even though another part of me wanted to reading it all in one sitting. It made me realise how far I’ve come in a short amount of time, how lucky I am to have family and friends supporting me, how being back in Australia has immediately wiped the feelings of isolation I felt in Berlin. But Lacey also hits on the feeling of aimlessness that one can feel after deciding to change — the overwhelmingness of the tasks ahead coupled with the processing of emotional upheaval makes for swampy ground.
But at the same time I’ve been on a path to building a new little life for myself. I’m back at work, earning money to pay off debts from last year. I’m spending time with family and friends and my home town and I’m loving it. I’m reading and napping and riding my bike. I’m trying to go gently, as my dear friend Danni is always telling me to do. My brain needs time to settle and adjust and so I’m trying to give myself the space to do this. Being back in Adelaide is helping. It’s quiet, I can go to the beach, there’s less pressure to fill my days. While I’ve been staying with my friends I’ve been spending a lot of time in their backyard. Eating breakfast on the deck while the dog runs around the clothesline (a Hills Hoist, naturally). Reading over a cup of tea in the afternoon sun. Drinking gin with my friends when they get home from work on my days off as the sun begins to lose it’s heat. And from time to time standing on my tip-toes and pulling a beautiful ripe fig from the big branch hanging over the back fence from the neighbour’s enormous fig tree. After a day of soaking up the sun they are bursting with warm juicy fruit that’s as sweet as jam. On a Saturday afternoon I came home from seeing friends and ate a fig with some local blue cheese and sugar plums bought from the Central Market whilst sitting out on the deck. The dog kept running under the table as I took the photo and then when I took the book to bed to read and nap before work, she curled up and slept under the bed. These quiet afternoons in Adelaide sometimes feel like my own little journey in search of quiet like Elyria’s. But sometimes they also just feel like I’m finally home.
Nobody Is Ever Missing does not offer the reader rounded conclusions or smooth resolutions. It does not set out to be empowering or self-help-like, but it does not aim to mourn or give up hope. It simply reminds us in a time where we are encouraged to set endless numbers of goals, to throw ourselves into relationships and careers in order to fit the mould set for us by others, to constantly be striving for happiness, mindfulness, financial stability, career success, and as women to be a perfect wife, a perfect professional woman, a perfect domestic goddess, all whilst remaining unflappable and perfectly groomed — that sometimes we just have to allow ourselves to fall apart. Sometimes we need to be aimless and alone and that’s ok. We can never truly break away from ourselves, we can never truly be missing — but we can reassert a quiet place for ourselves amidst the noise and remind ourselves of who we want to be.
Although I’d been wanting to read this novel since it was released in 2014, I finally got to it ahead of Catherine Lacey’s appearance at this weekend’s Adelaide Writers’ Week. Alongside Lacey I’m looking forward to hearing Joanna Walsh (founder of #readwomen and new author who’s books Vertigo and Hotel I’m keen to check out soon), Lucy Treloar (who’s historical fiction novel Salt Creek is set here in South Australia), and the always compelling Masha Gessen, alongside authors who’s work I’m more familiar with: Tegan Bennett Daylight, Peggy Frew, and particularly Lauren Groff who I will be desperately trying not to embarrass myself in front of while I continue to swoon over Fates and Furies. If you’re in town you can see the full program here, or if you’re in regional South Australia check out the events being streamed to local libraries, and please do let me know if you’re heading along to any events — I’d love a chance to hang around between sessions under a tree.