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If you were there: Missing people and the marks they leave behind by | Jacqueline Dyer By Francisco Garcia. Harper Collins, 2021. | Book Review

What the dead and the living missing share is this: they are both mostly unknown and unknowable. They are nowhere to us, even if they must be somewhere.”

When he was eight years old, Francisco Garcia’s Spanish father disappeared from his life. His English mother had died of breast cancer the previous year, and the young Francisco was brought up by an aunt and a grandmother. At 27, the English-speaking Londoner with the Spanish name is a journalist and writer. He decides it is time to re-engage with the story of his absent father, and to follow his traces. This book is his journey, but alongside the search for his father, this is an exploration of what it means to be missing, and especially, what it means to those left behind.

“But here I am, bound on a journey of discovery of his fate, which maybe has no definite, or even desired, conclusion. There is no certainty of what and who might be found. And far beyond my thoughts of him there is the whole shadow world of the missing that I have spent so much time trying to document and make sense of in my professional life as a journalist and writer.”

I was drawn to this book partly by my own personal history as an adopted child who tracked down her birth mother 40 years later; and partly by a book published in 2004 which had a profound impact on me at the time. “The Missing” by Andrew O’Hagan, written when he was a similar age to Francisco now, is a voyage of discovery through a Glasgow childhood in the 70’s, his awareness of people who vanished from his world seemingly without trace extending out to encompass the wider world of “mispers”, the term used by the police to denote a missing person.

O’Hagan’s book appeared in the decade following the arrest in the UK of Fred and Rose West, notorious serial killers responsible for preying on vulnerable young women over a 20- year period, sexually abusing and murdering them, including two of their own children, and burying them in the foundations of their house in Gloucester. Among others, O’Hagan explores the background of the missing women who became the Wests’ victims, even attending the trial and talking to local people who knew some of them. I had a personal interest in this, too, as Gloucester was my parents’ home town, and the trial itself was held in the country town I lived in for the first 18 years of my life. The retrospective knowledge that the Wests were trawling the fairgrounds, highways and clubs of the Gloucester area hunting their victims, when I was a teenager blithely fumbling my way to adulthood in those very same places, was creepy to say the least.

Returning to the present, the thread that links Francisco Garcia’s book to Andrew O’Hagan’s is the broader socio-economic context of the UK. As Garcia notes: “In London alone, the number of reported missing person cases has increased 77 per cent since 2010,” (BBC News, October 2018). In the almost 20 years between O’Hagan’s and Garcia’s books, the social situation has deteriorated, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened exponentially. As one reviewer of O’Hagan’s book noted: “The Missing is about the dispossessed and the underclass, those that are easily overlooked by the mainstream because they live on the peripheries”. (Goodreads). What is significant about Garcia’s book is that the people he talks to are mostly part of what is now the mainstream. They could be you or I, but for a little bad luck. The economic shift of the last 20 years has pushed more and more people to what we once thought of as the periphery of society. Garcia’s comment that “The missing tell us about things about society, from their unique place neither quite inside nor outside of it,” is an echo of O’Hagan’s findings two decades previously.

Even back in 2004, the UK was one of the most surveilled countries in the world, with more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in Europe. The fact that, despite advanced technology, people can still be impossible to trace is also testimony to the transience of our world, and how quickly people fade from social consciousness, a phenomenon that preoccupies both writers. O’Hagan’s book precedes the very public 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann, but he would have agreed with Garcia’s comment that “[such stories] represent a tiny fraction of an incomplete picture. Most of the missing are left in silence, far away from the public eye; the many thousands of stories that go untold and are perhaps never even recorded, every year.”

Yet where O’Hagan’s journey departs from his childhood and takes us into some very dark places, Garcia’s odyssey remains rooted in his own search, with his work as a journalist running parallel as he travels around the UK talking to those who have lost loved ones, documenting their background stories, trying to make sense of what it means to be missing someone. Garcia is a very lucid writer, his prose fluid and with precise imagery. The story of his parents, Stephanie and Christobal, is touching and fascinating in itself, as is his portrayal of those he meets on his travels. He connects with old friends and acquaintances from his time at university in Glasgow, and he meets new friends across the UK through the organisations that help to trace missing persons. The chapter headings track the progression of his work as he seeks to understand what it is that drives people away, why they return, and how those left behind process their absence.  

Somewhere in the midst of this crowded landscape, as I sought to follow the story threads of the different people, I found myself hoping for a conclusion to Francisco’s own story. Perhaps I cheated a little, zipping forward on my Kindle to see the title of the last chapter. Once I had satisfied myself that he does reach the end of his own journey in one way or another, I settled in to enjoy the rest of the book. I will not spoil it for you by revealing any more about Francisco’s journey, but if the subject matter grips you, this is a deeply felt, beautifully written book that raises many questions about the society we live in. Here in South Africa, the social situation is even more acute, the wealth gap much greater, yet the issues we all face are the same.

In spite of the subject matter, this is a hopeful and uplifting book. To anyone who has missed a friend, family member, partner, it will feel familiar, wherever you live. This is a book I will return to time and again, one that seeks to find answers to the questions we pose about our lives, and one that forces us, perhaps, to look in the mirror, to see what we have in common rather than what divides us.

Other sources:

“The Missing” by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber & Faber, 2004.

The definitive book about the Wests:

“Happy Like Murderers” by Gordon Burn, Faber & Faber, 2011.

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