The Missing Person's Guide to Love

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am

The Missing Person's Guide to Love

by Susanna Jones

Picador, HK$280

Returning to the village of her childhood on the Yorkshire moors for the funeral of a former friend and comrade in crime, Isabel is struck by how little has changed in the decade of her absence, and how many of the people she knew thought she was dead.

Isabel, who lives in Istanbul with her former fighter pilot husband Mete and their baby daughter Elif, hopes to learn during the funeral of Owen, killed in a car accident, what happened to his ex-girlfriend Julia, who vanished 18 years earlier.

The Missing Person's Guide to Love is the third novel by Susanna Jones (below), whose accomplished debut, The Earthquake Bird, was rightly acclaimed for its brilliantly odd take on a Tokyo love affair, and whose Water Lilly turns a ferry crossing from Japan to Shanghai into a truly nightmarish experience.

Jones might have been expected to continue her journey westwards and play similar tricks with Isabel's Istanbul, a most exotic location, but she gives only fleeting glimpses of this life. Instead, it's northern England's mysterious moors that envelop a clever, if somewhat overly contrived, narrative about how we realise what's missing only when we look.

'I felt like a ghost from the future, come to view the present,' Isabel thinks as she kills time in the lakeside park of her home village before Owen's funeral. She's convinced that he killed Julia, 15, midway through her paper-delivery route. 'But her body was not found and, as far as I have always known, no one was ever charged with her murder.'

Isabel and Owen became estranged when, after Julia's disappearance, they torched the local supermarket 'and almost burned the village down' in the belief that its owner, Mr McCreadie, had something to do with what happened to their friend. Isabel was sent to a juvenile facility; the slightly older Owen to prison.

Just off centre stage is Isabel's Aunt Maggie, who fled the village and its 'clique of nosy, uptight Tories', lives in London and, under the name Eva Cater, writes trashy novels with happy endings, in which women always get what they want. She occupies an italicised secondary narrative, which steadily converges with Isabel's for a rather confusing and not wholly satisfactory ending.

Isabel is convinced that Aunt Maggie has some of the answers she's looking for. The reader knows she received a phone call from a girl: 'You must help me. I seem to have disappeared but I'm not missing. I'm not missing.'

Answers come too from former school friend Kath, who never left the village. She explains how a rumour went around years earlier that Isabel was dead.

'It wasn't very consistent,' Kath says. 'Once I heard you'd died in prison and another time that it happened afterward. Your parents left the village and that seemed to fit with the story.

'It's a bit eerie though. The power of gossip, that it can make someone alive or dead.'

Isabel delays her return to Istanbul and enlists Owen's sister, Annie, and a friend from his adulthood, John, as she tries to get closure on what happened to Julia. Strange text messages from Mete report that a woman named Leila, a character from one of Aunt Maggie's books, is visiting.

But because Leila is an imaginary character, Isabel is convinced it must be a former opera singer, Bernadette, another of her aunt's strays, who was given shelter from the streets, where she lived on the run from gambling debts.

Jones uses her cast of characters like vibrant splashes of colour against a particularly dreary countryside intersected by the M1 and M6 motorways. It's a mark of her growing maturity as a writer that she doesn't allow the reader to get any distance from the village that might render it quaint, and the moors are left to lurk just beyond the next sentence.

The Missing Person's Guide to Love is far from faultless - The Earthquake Bird is still Jones' best. But it shows that she's prepared to experiment, even if the formula doesn't achieve the hoped-for result.