Ruth, the narrator of Susie Boyt’s seventh novel, is both the child of a single mother and a single mother herself. Intelligent, quirky and despairingly fastidious, she has tried to bring up her adored daughter in loving orderliness, but the results have been disastrous. By 15, the beautiful, gifted Eleanor is a heroin addict, living in filth and chaos. Before long, she is pregnant with Lily; and Ruth, ‘stodgy with intentions and conventions’, decides to make off with Lily in order to save her baby granddaughter’s life. Or perhaps it is Lily who saves Ruth.
‘People didn’t speak much of the thick currents of emotion that flowed between the single parent and the only child, the joint unbridled purpose, the coming first with each other, the aims shared, doubled, twinned,’ Ruth tells us, and adds tellingly: ‘I sometimes thought that politicians who lambast single parents for their irresponsibility, their sexual assault on the fabric of authority, were just consumed with jealousy that two people could be so close.’
The drama of the following 18 years, as Lily grows up, is described with an intensity and sincerity that mark this novel as a big advance on Boyt’s previous fiction. Always witty and unexpected (as her FT columns also showed), she has a clear perception of the passion, pain and particularities of female existence. The male characters, including those who impregnate both Ruth and Eleanor, are barely sketched in, though Eleanor’s father at least provides her with some money via a valuable work of art. Delicacies and delights are conjured out of small domestic treats, lavishly enjoyed and described, but the horror of hopeless addiction lies beneath. Boyd’s presentation of Ruth’s and Eleanor’s contrasting worlds is like watching a master baker create a cake of mille-feuille pastry in which a raw and bloody joint of meat is concealed.
Underlying the lyrical descriptions of a second shot at child-rearing is the anguish of being powerless to save one’s own child from an addiction to a drug that ‘felt like love’. Ruth, a sensible, popular teacher at a girls’ school, is herself addicted to loving the contemptuous, vulnerable Eleanor, whose indifference gives her the power to crucify her mother. Instead of standing up to this, our narrator abases herself: ‘There was a sense I got that some strand of purity in her could only see impurity in me.’
As in Boyt’s earlier novel The Small Hours, the love of young children is intertwined with a fierce aesthetic vision and an agonised humility. Yet parenting is not a choice between the dazed squalor of Eleanor’s existence and the willed perfections of Ruth’s: curating childhood brings a kind of deathliness. One would have liked to know more about why Ruth herself is as she is. Aspects of Loved and Missed reminded me of Candia McWilliam’s early work, and Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky — but minus these authors’ perception that extreme fastidiousness ultimately stifles and corrupts. When help comes it is through Ruth’s fellow teacher Jean’s robust good sense.
Even though one can query the philosophy, to wrest exquisite prose and engaging narrative out of a tale of pain and sorrow is the achievement of a serious novelist who has blossomed into originality and who deserves a wide audience. There are so many quasi-aphoristic observations about parenting, teaching, unhappiness and good sense that at times the novel feels like a corrective for our self-indulgent age. The title, taken from a gravestone inscription, is itself a wry joke about aiming at love, and missing it. Ruth’s redemption, and that of her grand-daughter, comes via the traditional route of courage, academic achievement, bribery and some timely lies. The novel’s ending is unexpectedly positive. Who would have thought that a story about drug addiction and self-destruction would leave its reader feeling optimistic?