Eventually, two other outcasts will find their way to the trailer: a former bus driver who’s dogged by memories of a terrible crash and a middle-age newlywed who calls herself Annabel. Much to her surprise, Annabel has recently discovered that she’s pregnant; she has also recently discovered that her husband does not want the baby.
That tiny trailer would be impossibly crowded with all these tenants were it not for the fact that, shortly after the novel opens, the Inverness Bridge collapses. Stefan and Anna, who were on the bridge at the time, are thrown from the ruined span into the chill currents of the river, and, presumably, they’re dead. Thus, through a caprice of Fate, the lives of two members of an already small cast of characters have been snipped short before the novel really gets going. And then there were three . . .
As she’s proven in other standout novels, such as “Puccini’s Ghosts” and “Half Broken Things,” Joss is a writer who possesses the austere worldview of the ancient Greeks and the brain of a Bletchley Park code breaker. Her narrative inventiveness has always been a marvel but never more so than in this novel, where everyone’s back, so to speak, is up against the “no exit” blankness of the river. How many plot twists and personal revelations can be generated out of a situation where the trio of main characters has nowhere left to run, nowhere to hide? Given that this is a thriller written by Morag Joss, the answer turns out to be: Plenty.
Annabel, in particular, is a source of constant surprises (as well as the most transfixing soliloquies). She views the bridge collapse as a kind of grotesque lucky break, because it affords her an opportunity to flee from her contemptuous husband and his demand that she terminate her pregnancy. In hiding in that tumbledown trailer, she is reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence. Here’s a passage where she ruminates on her newfound connection with a homeless man she used to see in a shopping center parking garage:
“Lying in his filthy nest or shuffling around the place, he would be guarding four dirty shopping bags. Always four. . . . What could be in them that was so precious, I used to wonder: spare shoes, a quarter bottle of booze, a lucky rabbit’s foot? Now I thought I understood . . . . He wasn’t just afraid they would be stolen. In a life eked out on a patch of concrete, he was holding off the final shame of destitution, an existence that carried no trace of who he was; for as long as he occupied the same patch of concrete, and was custodian of four bagfuls of the talismans and gadgetry and keepsakes that made that life his, he was a person, not a feral animal.”
That meditation of Annabel’s invokes the grim theme that preoccupies this elegantly morbid thriller: To what lengths will people go to defend what they think is essential to their sense of themselves? By the end of “Among the Missing,” even the most enlightened characters here seem prepared to go “feral.” They do so in a watery wasteland where unlikely characters fall victim to the pull of river and even stranger things emerge from its depths.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” and teaches literature at Georgetown University.