I will confess to being unfamiliar with Morag Joss's novels. The author of a number of critically recognized works, she crossed my desk with AMONG THE MISSING, a book that defies easy categorization but that demands the attention of anyone interested in general fiction. It takes place in the Highlands of Joss's native Scotland, using the sudden occurrence of a tragedy to bring three disparate individuals together, for better or for ill.
"Whether you read it now or save it for a cold December night, its considerable merits will shine through."
Ron is newly released from prison, having served several years incarceration for criminal negligence that cost several people their lives. Friends and relatives want nothing to do with him; some guilt money provided by his sister enables Ron to purchase a vehicle. As a result, he finds himself wandering somewhat aimlessly, picking up hitchhikers for some tenuous human contact and finding random day work.
Annabel is on an erstwhile honeymoon with her husband of short duration, their wedding taking place after a whirlwind Internet meeting and courtship. Their relationship is best described as polite --- certainly too much so for newlyweds --- and their celebration, as Annabel so wonderfully puts it, consists of the both of them on two different holidays. Annabel's announcement over breakfast that she's pregnant is greeted with ill grace and an ultimatum: either get an abortion, or the marriage is over. Annabel, who sees herself and her life as almost invisible, is already defining herself wholly in terms of her marriage, yet she cannot bear the thought of killing her unborn child.
Silva is eking out a hardscrabble existence with her husband and small daughter in a deserted house trailer by a river. Her life consists almost entirely of working as a clerk in a small convenience store owned and haphazardly operated by an unambitious alcoholic who is ill-suited for what has become her life's work. Silva's husband, meanwhile, tends to their home and daughter while spending his time plotting a different and better living and lacking the means to carry out whatever plans he has.
The mid-afternoon collapse of a local bridge brings Ron, Annabel and Silva together. The disaster results in a number of commuters going missing, undoubtedly dead. Annabel uses this as a means of manufacturing her disappearance in order to protect her unborn child. Silva's husband and child have disappeared in the carnage, yet she holds out hope, however unrealistic, that they will return. Ron wishes for contact with humanity, something more than a superficial mingling with the herd.
As circumstances bring the three together, first by happenstance, then by slow deliberation, they initially take comfort in each other. There are twists and turns, however, that lurk in the futures of each, some of which readers will see coming with dread, others of which will surprise, as the independent actions of the past slowly react with the present. Yes, each of these folks is in dire straits and was badly damaged at some point far from where the book first begins. Be that as it may, no character (or reader, for that matter) will be the same as they were at the beginning.
A warning here: AMONG THE MISSING is dark and grim for the most part, not exactly the heady beach read you might be looking for. Naturally, I loved every depressing word of it, from the hopelessness of the situation of each of its well-defined characters to the tightness of the plot into which Joss places her creations. Whether you read it now or save it for a cold December night, its considerable merits will shine through.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 22, 2011
Among the Missing