“The Missing” by Tim Gautreaux – For the love of children and steamboats

This is my review of The Missing by Tim Gautreaux.

Not to be confused with other stories bearing this title, “The Missing” refers not only to the abduction of a small girl called Lily, but also the psychological effects of family loss both on her and on Sam Simoneaux, the young French-speaking American who dedicates himself to finding her. Nicknamed “Lucky” for having landed in France off a US troopship just after the armistice which brought World War 1 to an end, Sam’s good fortune runs out when he loses his cushy job as a Louisiana department store “floor-walker” because of his failure to prevent the kidnappers from escaping with their prize. His attempts to find Lily, and to come to terms with his own past, form the core of this novel.

“The Missing” is a good “old-fashioned” yarn, in that it has a strong, straightforward plot with plenty of twists and tense or moving moments. It stands out for the quality of the writing: “…the train was pulled off the lurching ferry…., handed over to a greasy road locomotive, and proceeded west through poor, water-soaked farms into a reptile-laced swamp where virgin cypresses held up a cloud-dimmed sky……from one of the new aeroplanes the railroad would look like a flaw in a vast green carpet”.

Apart from creating this vivid sense of place, Tim Gautreaux is good on the development of Sam’s character, as he gains insights into dealing with both grief and revenge. The author must also have undertaken a phenomenal amount of research to produce the detailed descriptions of life in the 1920s on Mississippi paddlesteamer leisure cruises, where skilled black jazz musicians won over their local audiences, often cracking deep southern prejudice in the process.

If forced to criticise this impressive and absorbing novel, I would say that it is probably too long, insufficiently ruthless in rooting out superfluous, more mundane details, whilst omitting some areas of interest to the reader such as how Sam came to marry his long-suffering wife, Linda, or what befell some of the villains of the piece. I was in fact unconvinced that a strong, capable man like Sam would have found it so hard to gain employment other than working on the paddlesteamer, or that Linda would have accepted with so little complaint Sam’s long absences, in particular when he could no longer claim that they were necessary to find Lily. Some events are “told” rather than “shown” as in the case of the personalities and motivations of Lily’s captors. Also, despite some grim events, the story lapses at times into American-style corniness and slapstick punch-ups, but manages to take an unusually sophisticated approach to the issue of “revenge”. I now plan to read “The Clearing”…….

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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