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Monday, 20 June 2011

Book Review: The Missing by Juliet Bates

There's something very frustrating about finishing a book and being unable to specify why you found it to be an utterly absorbing read. Perhaps it's because this book is smooth (and fairly succinct at just over 200 pages), or because the characters are so lightly documented that it feels as though Bates has taken seriously the old advice of showing rather than telling. Whatever the reason, I found it to be a captivating read.

The Missing follows journalist Frances Daye as she investigates another woman reported to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Set in 1958, it documents Frances's trips to London and then Paris as she investigates Ania but also recalls fragments of her own life in the process. The result is a deliciously descriptive book that questions the notion of memories and the idea of believing what you want to believe. It also includes some haunting scenes in passing that make you stop and think about humanity - the rape of a girl, the crushing of a mouse underneath a boot. The latter I just have to quote:

It must have been the silence that made Dagarov look round. Perhaps he no longer heard the boy's breathing or the turning of pages for he looked towards the bed and saw the boy's face and his focused eyes. He followed the boy's gaze right down to the floor beside his own feet where the baby mouse crouched with the tobacco delicately balanced between its two front paws. Then without saying one word, Boris Dagarov lifted his foot encased in its heavy boot and smashed it straight down on the animal.

Looking up, he saw the boy's astounded face, and he laughed. He laughed so violently that he made the water pipes rattle and the light bulb swing. The boy stared back at Dagarov's grotesque face, and he smelt the foul stench that belched from the pits and crevices of the store room manager's open mouth. Then the boy looked down at the corpse of the flattened animal, and he felt something harden in his heart. (151)

There are several narrators in the novel and several stories. However, for all that, it isn't difficult to follow. The one criticism I had was that between parts two and three we skip many years only to work our way back to where part two left off. I found it to be a little disorientating on first reading, I have to admit. That said, I understand why Bates chose to do this in the context of the story.

All in all, this is a book I would certainly recommend. But, please please please, if you do buy it, purchase direct from Linen Press. This blog on the subject shows how difficult it is for this small publisher to survive in an Amazon-dominated world.

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