Inspired Reads: Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”

Author’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series, “Inspired Reads,” focused on books about inspiring women, feminism, and issues facing women in contemporary culture.

A story: I know almost nothing about New Zealand. And yet, a couple months back, I found myself falling down a Google rabbit hole, researching just how easy it could be to pick up and move there. I’d heard in passing that New Zealand was one of the easier countries to live abroad in, and over the course of one very strange day, I started kicking the idea around, imagining what it would be like to take a day-long flight to the other side of the world and set up life in a place where the sheep outnumber the people. And then I got a hold of myself. But for a moment, I’ll admit, the idea of up-and-leaving was very appealing. If there’s one thing my mid-twenties have taught me, it’s that adulthood does not offer many straightforward answers, and the uncomfortable nagging thought of “what am I doing?” is sure to linger into the next decade as well. Who hasn’t wanted to escape this in some way? In an interview with Electric Literature, the author Catherine Lacey may have put it best: “There’s a power in disappearing.”

I relate this story because it’s partly why, when browsing through recommended titles on Amazon, I was drawn into the description of Lacey’s debut novel Nobody is Ever Missing. That, and it has a lovely cover (I would argue in most cases nowadays, you really can judge a book by its cover). The novel follows Elyria, a 28-year old from Manhattan who takes a one-way flight to New Zealand, leaving behind her life in New York, including her husband Charles, a college math professor, and a job writing for a CBS soap opera. She leaves New York without telling anyone, not even a scribbled note at the door for her husband. Elyria, named after a town in Ohio her alcoholic mother had never visited, is looking to escape her life, her loveless marriage, her familial wounds. In the opening pages of the book she describes herself as a “human non sequitur —senseless and misplaced, a bad joke, a joke with no place to land.”

The book is structured around staccato-like chapters, and despite an almost absence of plot, it moves fast, and I found myself drawn into the narrator’s dark, lyrical voice. After meeting a poet in New York, Werner, who off-handedly offers her a place to stay on his New Zealand farm, Elly immediately takes him up on it. The pairing doesn’t work, as Werner declares her too sad to bear, a sentiment readers will inevitably grapple with as well. Throughout the novel, we learn more about what Elyria longs for: she longs to escape her life while still living; to reconcile the space between her perceived inner and outer selves, a space she dubs her “wildebeest;” and to cope with the loss of her sister.

Along Elly’s journey we meet a mixed-bag of Kiwis (bartenders, poets, farmers, eccentrics), from maternal stand-ins who warn her not to take rides from strange men in vans, to strange men in vans who turn out to be pretty nice. Although there are new characters and places introduced, the main thrust of the novel takes place within Elly’s mind. Even the wild landscape of New Zealand is obscured in favor of circuitous inner monologues, and she admits to “not even having an appropriate curiosity about this new country (a boring little mountain, a plain blue lake, a gas station, the same as ours only slightly not).” The violence in the story, foreshadowed early on by roadside warnings, eventually comes to a head, though in an unexpected way, leading Elyria to a brief hospitalization and return trip to New York. She’s there to start the next chapter in her life, but, wisely, Lacey leaves us without a tidy ending.

A fair warning: this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. In parts, it can seem oppressively bleak, and yet there are moments of real humor throughout. In his review of the book in The New York Times, Dwight Garner likens Lacey’s protagonist to the 70s characters of Joan Didion and Renata Adler, a genre he dubs “Smart Women Adrift.” While Daphne Merkin of The New Yorker characterizes Lacey’s debut as a postmodern existential novel, writing that Elyria fits Leslie Jamison’s definition of the “post-wounded woman” (“one with a brain on overdrive and emotions that are slow to form, if not quite stalled.”) At one point in the novel, Werner questions Elyria’s motivations, not understanding women like her, ones who are “trying to find themselves somewhere.” The book will naturally call to mind similar tales of women on solo journeys, from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Thankfully, Lacey’s novel could really be classified as the anti-Eat, Pray, Love, but like Wild, it does wrestle with the idea of finding one’s self in solitude. In the end, Lacey’s debut offers the argument that escape can be empowering and rebellious.

I found this debut very compelling, and I found myself almost constantly highlighting lines throughout the novel that were particularly poetic, provoking or haunting. While the ending did feel a bit unsatisfying at first, I liked that, as in life, things aren’t perfectly resolved. The main character has grown and transformed in her months abroad, finally realizing that “running from something isn’t freedom, it’s just a way to flee.” A protagonist and antagonist at the same time, Elyria gets in the way of herself, and is almost comically unable to help herself get un-stuck. In this regard, I found the novel both exhausting and remarkably relatable. In the end, I’d say one of the most inspiring parts of the novel and Lacey’s writing is the empathic character she’s created — one that readers can find an affinity with and recognize their own struggles articulated in her strong voice.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ALLY MACDONALD

Ally MacDonald

I’m an editor at O’Reilly Media where I work with talented content creators on technical books and videos focused on server-side web topics. Prior to joining O’Reilly, I worked in higher education publishing at Cengage Learning, interned at St. Martin’s Press in New York, and also taught English abroad in the Czech Republic. When I’m not editing, or thinking about things I should be editing, you can find me reading, consuming large amounts of coffee, cooking fun things and then taking Instagram pictures of them, and probably watching too much Netflix (sometimes all of these at once). Follow me on Twitter to keep up with my adventures in tech publishing and occasional cat GIFs.

Twitter: @allyatoreilly

Read more about and from the author: Ally’s WiLab Profile