Book review: Missing Persons by Nicci Gerrard

Missing Persons
by Nicci Gerrard
Penguin, 2012

Missing Persons is a story about an English family who live in East Anglia: Isabel is a primary-school teacher, Felix an academic at the nearby university, and their three children are growing up. The middle child, Johnny (never called John) is the only one of the three who seems problem-free: as the novel opens his parents take him to start his university degree course in Sheffield. After a few weeks, Johnny ceases all communication and vanishes.

The novel tells the story of the next seven years in the lives of the remaining family members. A long section of 200 pages is devoted to Isabel’s reactions in the days and weeks immediately following the disappearance, including her perceptions of her own childhood family and of various friends of hers and of Johnny’s. Although movingly depicted, there are far too many details of cooking and nurturing to sustain this number of pages. The second half of the novel, narrated from various perspectives, is in some ways more engaging, as fewer pages proportionately are given to each year since the disappearance. But even though the author provides many telling vignettes, the narrative as a whole tends to skate over the surface rather than getting to grips with the issues or the characters.

As ever with Nicci Gerrard, this book is readable and is a telling intimate portrait of family life and the pains of growing up. The parents and siblings are forced to adapt to the loss of Johnny, but essentially stay the same – particularly in the case of Isabel, a rather overwhelmingly domesticated woman (her cooking is frankly obsessive) who seems to swamp her offspring with anxiety and a striving for a perfect family image. Her personality makes it easy to see how a child might feel claustrophobic or find it hard to break away independently. Although there is much to like about this book, in the end I found it frustratingly superficial in its failure to provide real insight into motivation and cause.

When Nicci Gerrard writes crime novels with Sean French in the Nicci French persona, the mystery or thriller plot provides an impetus for the story. In Missing Persons, the story itself becomes the details – of Isobel’s relationships with her brother, her seeking out of the man who painted her mother (who died when she was nine), Felix’s breakdown, weddings and funerals, and so on. Although the novel is undoubtedly sincere, these descriptions in themselves do not add up to enough. A braver investigation into Johnny’s story or a different outcome for the family dynamics in the final section, for example, could have provided the book with some much-needed edge and purpose.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine programme

We Love this Book: short review of this novel.
YouTube: Nicci Gerrard talks about the novel.
Observer: Nicci Gerrard on “empty nest” syndrome, an article published to coincide with Missing Children’s day (25 May).
Best crime books: synopsis of this book and the other novels written by Nicci Gerrard as sole author (all of which I’ve read, so I know they are not crime novels!).