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Alfred Hitchcock did not care for mysteries. They were, he argued, essentially “intellectual” puzzles. Most of the emotion and suspense in a typical mystery narrative occurs close to the end, where the writer is finally able to let the truth loose on a reader hungry for answers. The mystery narrative is concerned with the identity of the killer, or kidnapper, or fraudster, and why he or she committed the crime.
In her second novel, Italian columnist Concita De Gregorio takes a different approach. The Missing Word revolves around the disappearance of two young girls, Alessia and Livia, and the way their mother, Irina, has responded to the mystery. Though a short book – this English language translation from Clarissa Botsford totals 131 pages – the scope of the novel is vast. The book is made up of letters, lists, and reflections on topics ranging from parenting, to marriage, to the spectre of absence.
But The Missing Word does not stay on the mystery of the girls’ disappearance – where did they go? what’s happened to them? – it also homes in on the consequences of their disappearance for the woman left behind, treating this consideration as a story element in its own right, rather than simply as an extension of the missing girls’ narrative. Irina’s husband is out of the picture – he disappeared along with the girls, and was later found dead. Irina is alone, her family erased. Such an experience is bound to instigate an identity crisis, but where a more conventional mystery novel might assume an identity crisis as the natural consequence of such a loss, Irina’s observations suggest that the problem might lie in the “theft of identity” that comes with referring to someone as “my wife” or “my son.” Her husband was guilty of this. If a person is defined by her relationship to others, what does she become after they are gone? The book considers this question thoughtfully and rigorously, sometimes at the expense of Alessia and Livia’s story, alternating between weighty reflection and chapters such as “List. Happiness,” in which Irina writes down a list of things that make her happy, including “Red wine, when it’s good” and “Going to the movies.” The occasional change in style, tone and narrative concern might be enough to dissuade some readers from the page. But other readers might appreciate the tangents, finding in them alternative angles from which they can better understand Irina and her evolving identity.
In Chapter 31, titled “Children,” Irina considers the possibility of having more children now that her own have vanished. “Absence is a constant presence,” she observes, but “It is impossible to fill the gap left by living bodies.” The reflections are insightful, cutting: “You can be nostalgic about people, not categories [. . .] Alessia and Livia are not girls, they are Alessia and Livia.” “Children” cannot feel the void that “bodies,” individual and unique, leave behind. There are chapters, headed “Me About You” and written in italic, in which a new voice addresses Irina – her thoughts, feelings and fears. The voice is sweeping and poetic: “It’s only at the end of everything that I know, we both know, why this story, your story, is no ordinary story [. . .] and why it’s so powerful.” But the voice can also be just as cutting as Irina’s: “And you – when people ask about you – feel guilty because you are a red-hot ember that scorches anyone that touches it.”
In a subplot that nonetheless speaks to the central theme of reassessment in the face of absence, Irina also becomes obsessed with unraveling the story of her “real great-grandmother, whose daughter was taken away by the man she loved, never to see her again.” Irina’s great grandfather, Giovanni, an Italian immigrant in the United States, had fallen in love with “the factory owner’s daughter.” A child was born, Mayme, out of wedlock, and the rich factory owner paid Giovanni off so that he would return to Italy with the child and forget about the girl’s biological mother forever. Giovanni took the money and went back to Italy with his wife, Domenica, “an Italo-American forced to move to a country that was not hers, with a daughter that was hers but not hers.” Irina feels an affinity with her “nameless great-grandmother, in the sanatorium where her rich and powerful family had locked her up in order to eradicate her presence on the family tree.” The nameless great-grandmother has been erased – the words “mother,” “lover,” “grandmother,” “great-grandmother,” have all been taken from her. “Just like the great-grandmother I need to find out about,” Irina explains, “I am living my life without my girls.”
The Missing Word is undoubtably a subversive book. It takes as its subject matter the unknown status of two missing girls. But the novel’s title alludes to a missing word, not missing girls or children. De Gregorio interrogates the classic missing person mystery and finds a deeper mystery hidden within – that of missing identity. Irina is not only looking for her daughters, she is also looking for herself. Specifically, she is looking for the categories that used to define her – wife and mother – now vanished into thin air. When Irina writes to her girls’ teachers asking for their old schoolwork, the school explains that “the material was the property of the school and that copies can be obtained in genuine cases of demonstrable necessity and only by following a specific procedure.” The bureaucratic language and the emphasis on ownership speaks to Irina’s loss of status. She has become a stranger who almost has no right contacting the school in the first place. The Missing Word is not a conventional mystery, and some readers may find the emphasis on Irina’s identity confusing. In recent times, TV shows like The Killing have endeavored to go beyond the “intellectual puzzle” that was the bane of Hitchcock, exploring the effects of loss on those left behind. The Missing Word takes this a step further, shining a light on the words that vanish with the missing loved one, and exploring how their absence changes the individual that is left searching for answers. The result is a portrait of a woman as lost as the daughters she is trying to find.
By Concita de Gregorio
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford
Europa Editions, 112 pages
Robert Montero is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in South Bank Poetry and London Grip, among others. A novel he wrote was long-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize.