The Missing

Charles Taylor reviews the novel "The Missing" by Andrew O'Hagan.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 25, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"We are none of us safe in this world." What's unsettling about the first sentence of this extraordinary book by the young Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan is the way he takes the simple fact of our own vulnerability, a fact so familiar we conveniently ignore it, and pushes it to the center of our minds. "The Missing" is an exploration of what it means to go missing, and what can go missing -- places as well as people, and not just people who are victims of crime, but the victimizers themselves whose crimes, the snuffing out of someone else's identity, are often the only clues they leave to their own.

O'Hagan explains that the notion of "the missing" has been with him since childhood. His grandfather was lost at sea during World War II, and a three-year-old boy disappeared from his neighborhood when he was growing up. Even his town was a reminder of what can vanish. O'Hagan grew up in one of the planned suburban developments that sprang up outside Glasgow in the late '60s. Those towns erased what had been before and, having fallen into disrepair, are themselves now on the verge of vanishing. What he's written is a sort of elliptical memoir that uses his childhood as a springboard to events that deepen the meanings of "the missing."

To O'Hagan, the missing encompasses the homeless, people whose "documentary lives" have ended. Other mispers (to use a British police term) leave taunting glimpses of where they might be now. The father of a missing boy sees a photo of someone who might be his son in a Foreign Legion uniform, but can receive no confirmation one way or the other. The sister of the final victim of Glasgow's "Bible John" killer shared a taxi ride with her sister and the murderer on the night of the crime. No one has been able to find the man she so vividly remembers. Most disturbing are the 12 women murdered by a British couple, women whose disappearances went unnoticed for years because no one cared much that they were gone.

"The Missing" is the only book I've read in years that has caused me to lose sleep, but there's never a moment where O'Hagan exploits his subject. He's written a work of social criticism that makes almost poetic connections. His measured voice makes the book profoundly unnerving, but his deep empathy keeps him connected to the world as he faces its potential for violence. He's made us aware of the ghosts that surround us without becoming a ghoul himself.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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