Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating debut defies simple classification. Ostensibly, this work of non-fiction is an exploration of missing persons however to call it just that would be to do it a disservice. It is also an autobiography, a piece of social history and a memoir of time spent travelling up and down the UK, in search of the stories of the vanished and the families left behind.
The first third of the book explores O’Hagan’s childhood, growing up in a tenement in Glasgow and the stories of missing people who coloured his young perception of the world. His talks about his grandfather who was lost at sea and who would remain a shadow hanging over the family history. Glasgow serial killer Bible John was active when O’Hagan was growing up and he remembers the disappearance of a boy his age, who vanished while out riding his bike.
That’s the way of it; the killing of people, and people’s disappearance, makes us aware of our being here, in a very specific place, and of the chance of our just as easily not being here at all, the chance that passed us by, the chance of not being.
With a clear-eyed empathy, O’Hagan interviews the families left behind, and their pain is laid bare through the smallest of details. One father of a missing boy spotted a homeless young man who looked exactly like his lost son, and wanted to ask him to come and live with him and pretend to be the boy he once held dear. Another mother continued to iron her son’s shirts, every other day, despite the passing years meaning that the shirts would never fit him even if he did return.
O’Hagan also gives time to those who work to look for the missing – the police officers, the coroners and workers in homeless shelters. Most interestingly, he talks to the wilfully missing, those who have run away and disappeared of their own volition, and those who do not want to be found. He muses on how easy it is for some people to simply no longer ‘be’ and how many of those, through social and personal circumstance, often have no one to miss them at all.
This leads him to the heart of his investigation and to Fred West, by way of his connections to Glasgow, where he had lived with his first wife Rena, one of West’s earliest victims. As a first-hand reporter at Cromwell Street in Gloucester, O’Hagan focuses not so much on the Wests but on their victims; and with a compassion and introspection he brings these girls to life, detailing the lives they were living and the dreams they were pursuing when they met their untimely deaths.
My mind was filling with a sense of a vast carelessness in Britain, a new-style social anomie, where it was possible for a great many of these girls, these victims of Fred and Rosemary West, to have been missing for years but never reported as such. Nobody noticed. “They were killable,” a policeman said to me. “They were easy to kill. And the Wests knew how to pick them off.”
A sense of anxiety and fear pervades The Missing and while it’s haphazard structure won’t appeal to all readers, it is a powerfully observed portrait of lives lived on the edges, where violence is commonplace and the unthinkable can become reality. The book owes a debt to Gordon Burn, who also wrote about the Wests, with its mix of reportage and personal biography. Some aspects of the book are not as successful as others – a passing reference to the killers of James Bulger raises interesting questions about the nature of childhood violence, but isn’t explored in any depth – however O’Hagan evokes a tone of empathy and sensitivity throughout in his endeavour to shine a light on the lives of people who are often all too easily forgotten
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