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“I sat on a curb in Takaka, trying to think clearly about mixed feelings. Being alone was what I wanted, being alone was not what I wanted… I wanted to want a regular life: the usual husband, the usual apartment, sidewalks, noises and so on. But I had left it, I had gone elsewhere…”
In Catherine Lacey’s debut Nobody is Ever Missing, Elyria, at 28, has left behind her life in New York to hitchhike around New Zealand. She is attempting to leave behind a traumatic past: the suicide of her sister Ruby haunts her and encircles her marriage, which is slowly disintegrating.
She comes to New Zealand on a whim, accepting a flippant invitation to stay at a poet’s house in Golden Bay. She’s not sure his offer is genuine and her decision to come confounds her. Wandering from the North to the South Island and back again, one silent truck to the next, Elyria finds New Zealand quiet in contrast to her loud internal chaos: “… maybe this is why I had come here. Not for the isolation, but the place where people can happily do very little, the world’s largest waiting room.”
This languid pattern of drifting allows her to fall into an introspective, and sometimes exhausting well: sentences run in streams, thoughts advance and turn back in on themselves. At times she embodies a millennial’s fatalism, a certainty that truth is found in cynicism. But Lacey’s writing can also veer into the humane, finding in the accumulation of thought and rumination an unexpected tenderness:
“We both cried and the fluorescent light tinted our skin blue and I could see right through his skin to a vein on his face, a tiny blue vein made bluer in the blue light and we held hands – it somehow made sense to hold hands with this stranger in ways it had never made sense to hold hands with any other stranger.”
In this raw, insightful novel Lacey examines the desire to escape—sadness, the past, the self—through solitude and flight. She captures a highly perceptive mind, with an off-kilter imagination and deep sensitivity, and in doing creates a distinctive voice. As the title suggests, Elyria discovers she cannot really disappear—she can never be missing to herself. This thought strikes her as “real”, perhaps a little less lonely, a small light shining on the dark, open sea.