Alison Moore (Salt, £9.99)

Reviewed by Malcolm Forbes

AT first glance, Alison Moore’s latest novel feels more like old, familiar ground than new, untraversed terrain. Various tried-and-tested tropes from her first three novels are present and correct in this, her fourth. Like her Booker-shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, there looms the dark shadow of past trauma. As with its follow-up, He Wants, we have a protagonist who is both a lonely soul and a creature of mundane habit. And in the same vein as previous novel Death and the Seaside, a palpable sense of disquiet pervades the proceedings.

Closer scrutiny reveals that these components have not been lazily recycled but artfully restyled. Not only that, they constitute just some of the ingredients which, when blended together, create an original and intoxicating brew.

The book’s driving force is its flawed, damaged and entirely sympathetic heroine. At 49, Jessie Noon’s life has been one of dislocating change and stultifying routine. She moved from the Fens to the Midlands and is now settled in Hawick where she works as a translator. Her second husband, Will, walked out on her in January, leaving a goodbye note in shower steam on the bathroom mirror. Her son, Paul, now 30, abandoned her as a teenager. She sends texts to him and Christmas cards to her childhood friend, Amy, but neither writes back.

Not that Jessie is completely alone. She believes her spare room is haunted by the restless spirit of a little girl. She starts a relationship with Robert, a local outreach worker, whose patience is tested by her current concerns and a predicament in the making. In due course more people sever contact with her. But then she receives a postcard with a message which transforms everything: “I’m on my way home.”

As its title suggests, Missing is about disappearance, loss, absence. This is most in evidence in the book’s sequence of flashbacks which chronicle a tragedy from 1985. However, the title also relates to Jessie, a character who is, in more than one respect, not all there. This is a woman whose lack of self-awareness prompts raised eyebrows or cold shoulders; a woman who relays the plots of ghost stories to semi-strangers in pubs, and who wonders aloud whether a house remembers, and misses, past occupants.

Jessie’s eccentricities beguile. Her musings, observations and trips down memory lane captivate. Unfortunately, her day-to-day activities grate. Moore clogs her narrative with domestic detail: Jessie feeds the cat and walks the dog; she shops and cooks, eats and drinks, hoovers and cleans. A whole paragraph is devoted to her bathroom pedal bin.

The novel is at its best when it is a guessing game. Moore sprinkles clues and withholds pertinent information and makes us join the dots and fill in the blanks. Just when we think we have the full story, Moore surprises us with an unexpected turn or, in Jessie’s case, an inexplicable trait.

Like Moore’s other works, Missing starts out as a spare and seemingly simple psychological drama. But stay with it and dig deeper, for beneath the surface lurk immensely satisfying hidden depths.