A Particularly Intimate Mourning: On Susie Boyt’s “Loved and Missed”
By Eric GudasOctober 11, 2023
Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt
Lily’s toddler vitality transforms Ruth’s description into a breathless paean: “[S]he bundled herself onto my lap, so many long limbs it seemed she had, six or nine, attaching herself to me as though she were a koala and I a tree, not that exactly, but there was a declaration in her movements that I was, my body was, her home, her natural habitat.” As Ruth’s imagination grows exuberant, so does her syntax, which throw outs clauses as swiftly as Lily-the-koala grows limbs. Ruth and Lily metamorphose into the central (but not only) mother-daughter dyad of Loved and Missed. Except, of course, that Lily’s mother isn’t Ruth herself, but Ruth’s own daughter, Eleanor. Lily illuminates the novel, but Eleanor, with her “hollow-cheeked, hard red-rimmed eyes,” haunts it—as much by her absence as in her often erratic presence.
With Loved and Missed, published by New York Review Books and the first of her novels to appear in the United States, Boyt makes her own dazzling, if belated, arrival. If my tattered and heavily annotated copy of Loved and Missed serves as a harbinger, Boyt has written a 21st-century classic. At Loved and Missed’s center lies the unabashedly heartwarming story of how Ruth and Lily become a family. Early in the novel, Ruth takes hold of the seven-month-old Lily’s pram—and never returns her to Eleanor and Ben, Lily’s father. (Like all the fathers in Loved and Missed, Ben quickly fades from his daughter’s life.) Ruth resolves: “She was going to get the most anyone could give. They had had their chance. I was ambitious for her. She was herself, you could see it on her face where there was plainly visible a tenacity of purpose to her.” Ruth makes good on her promise to Lily (and to herself) in large ways and small. Over the next 15 years, sustained by her grandmother’s love, Lily grows up before our eyes into the young woman with a “tenacity of purpose” who responds like this when a doctor patronizes Ruth: “Very quietly Lily got out of the chair next to my bed and stood up to him. ‘I hope, Mr Ratcliffe, in all your life,’ she said, ‘that no one ever speaks to your mother as you have just spoken to my—to mine.’ She sat down. Put her hands in her lap.”
This uplifting moment is not only hard-earned in Loved and Missed, but also particularly rare in that it doesn’t prompt a corresponding memory from Ruth’s past. As Ruth becomes Lily’s mother in every way that matters, she experiences a kind of awakening: “It wasn’t a life in the shadows any more—instead exhilaration, free-running cheer that had no basis of anxiety. Hope, I suppose it was.” As a result, a stream of memories and “shapeless, half-remembered ghost-emotions” from the decades before Lily’s birth enters the present-tense narrative and transforms it. These “ghost-emotions” evoke loss, disappointment, and abandonment—but they also summon joys, however fleeting. Even though the “one moment of high romance” between Ruth and the shadowy figure of Eleanor’s father, a man preoccupied with “safeguarding his privacy,” occurs not in person but over the phone, the moment’s potency remains undimmed for Ruth after decades. Boyt, an acute student of Henry James’s fiction, creates an interlocking series of narratives that is not reducible to the so-called “trauma plot.” No single memory or cluster of memories explains why Ruth feels “smashed up” at the novel’s outset. Instead, Loved and Missed tracks the shambolic emergence of Ruth’s past within the present-tense narrative, and, in the process, raises as many questions as it answers—particularly regarding her relationship with Eleanor.
“I knew I could be guilty of not letting myself see things,” Ruth confides in the reader early on. The reason Eleanor cannot be a mother to Lily surfaces piecemeal at first, through Ruth’s half-averted eyes: the unsettling “high wattage” of Eleanor’s smile, her “fragile and bird-limbed” form, then, ominously, a “burnt spoon” amidst the chaos of her living room. Ruth finally uses the words “drugs” and “addicted” for the first time when, late in the novel, she attends a “meeting for families affected by drugs.” Before she bolts from the gathering, Ruth refuses to label Eleanor an “addicted person”: “All the other people were begging their mothers for help, handouts, hope, approval, cash or assorted crumbs of those things. Eleanor didn’t want us in her life. She’d turned us away.” Ruth, to put the case more bluntly than she would, takes her daughter’s addiction (a word that never appears in Loved and Missed) personally; in that sense, she may have more in common with the meeting’s other “mothers” than she cares to admit.
Ruth’s conviction that her own failure as a mother has, in effect, caused her daughter’s addiction carries, for her, the force of truth: “[M]y care had equalled what she was living.” This belief amounts to a kind of fallacy, of course. Nevertheless, the certainty, misguided or not, brings passion, abandon even, into Ruth’s voice and her daily existence because it gives her a central role in the story of a daughter who’s pushed her away:
Sometimes I thought the more Eleanor evaded and erased me the more I needed her. There were sharp ambushes when her absence hit me sternly. When I heard torch songs on the car radio—anthems about the seamy side of love, its injustices, misunderstandings, betrayals, the endless waiting—I often pictured her not thinking about me. Neglect your children and they will be obsessed with you for life—I read that once—but what about when they neglected you?
In the ghost story of Eleanor and Ruth, a story shadowed by losses from Ruth’s childhood onwards, the figures of abandoned child and uncaring parent blur into each other. Boyt prefaces Loved and Missed with an epigraph from the macabrely comic and very British writer Stevie Smith’s poem “Maria.” As I got deeper into the novel, however, I recalled another of Smith’s poems, “The Wanderer,” in which a “pitiful ghost” cries out, “You have weaned me too soon, you must nurse me again.” This ghost hints at the “seamy side” of Eleanor’s day-to-day existence that Ruth’s narration conceals—the addict desperately seeking her next fix. Ruth herself, however, uses the poem’s key verb: “I made up my mind to wean myself off Eleanor.”
When 15-year-old Lily takes her brief star turn as narrator, it’s a relief to hear words tabooed by Ruth—“naloxone,” “syringe,” “opiate,” “overdose.” Through Lily’s eyes, we finally see her mother as Ruth cannot and will not, when Lily recalls Eleanor’s unexpected arrival at her school:
Eleanor was like a haunted house at the fair or something. Hollow bits and scabs and shadows and under it all something very sharp flickering away. It was a dark scene, her standing there asking me to go home with her. Her arms were bony and bright white but with pink and red holes that were healing over, holes that looked fresh and raw.
Coming late in Loved and Missed, Lily’s “fresh and raw” description of her mother echoes, disquietingly, her own “heroic” appearance in Ruth’s living room back in the first chapter. Through Lily’s clear eyes, we see the evidence of what Ruth euphemistically calls “[t]he way [Eleanor] had profaned her body.” Both Lily and Ruth use “dark” to evoke Eleanor, and indeed she appears as a figure of death-in-life, with her chill skin (“I gave her a kiss on the cheek, which was freezing”), ruined teeth, and skeletal form, from which Lily flees: “I started to cry and I turned and ran from Eleanor into the middle of a crowd of girls.” At the same time, we witness Eleanor’s first, and probably last, attempt to take a parent’s everyday role and pick her daughter up from school. What Boyt calls, in her 2017 introduction to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Stories, “the ghost of a good mother” flickers momentarily in Loved and Missed before it disappears.
Ruth certainly doesn’t consider herself a good mother, ghostly or otherwise, as she reveals to a postman at seven in the morning (long story): “‘I’m not the best mum in the world.’ It was such a relief to confess it finally! My voice sounded elated.” Ruth’s voice, uncannily conjured by Boyt—that evasive, occasionally snarky, riotously inventive, unexpectedly ecstatic, hilarious, and persistently self-lacerating narrative voice, teeming with non sequiturs, precipitate disclosures, and needful advice (“Sometimes in life you have to let your heart and bones off the hook of yourself”)—emerges as the true star of Loved and Missed. Ruth’s humor lights up the book even (or especially) in its most dire moments: “Depression is to me what Wordsworth was to daffodils,” she avows, a bit sickness-addled, when presented with flowers in her hospital bed. A self-confessed melancholiac, Ruth also has a lifetime’s experience of “that early part of mourning when the person hasn’t died yet and you feel a bit more alive than you can take because stocks are in short supply. Doomed elation: everything concentrated and electric.” The contraries of aliveness and death, mourning and euphoria, fierce attachment and bitter rejection, hope and despondency intermingle in Ruth’s voice, which in turn becomes a “concentrated and electric” presence in Loved and Missed.
Boyt hasn’t written a novel about “families affected by drugs,” or about even about one family affected by drugs. Ruth hints at the novel’s true obsessions when she tips her hat to Freud: “People said love and work were the strongest things in life, but I wondered if it was truer to say work and grief.” Both love and grief, loving people and missing them, require labor—in a sense that Ruth herself (who muses, “Being with someone who was close to dying was oddly akin to waiting to give birth”) would appreciate. The work of grief and the work of love often merge: “If Eleanor died—I understood prayers for the dead more than anything else religion offered.” Loved and Missed contains, in addition to Lily’s christening, enough deathbed scenes and funerals—rituals of grief and love—to pack one of the 19th-century classic novels to which Ruth so often alludes. Early on, Ruth narrowly avoids making her best Freudian slip aloud: “Not the funeral—God almighty!—the christening.”
Eleanor’s death—imagined, anticipated, feared—disquiets Loved and Missed from start to finish, particularly in Ruth’s memory of the night she discovers Eleanor in her bed, naked and barely breathing. After attempting to revive Eleanor herself, Ruth summons an ambulance, then watches paramedics resuscitate her daughter en route to the hospital:
I was hoping, praying, barely breathing myself, as though reducing my take-up of air would leave more for her. Gradually a small spread of colour returned to her face. One of her arms lifted itself. After a minute she opened her eyes and motioned for me to leave her with two flicks of her hand. I nodded and swallowed and stood as one well versed in unrequited love scenes knows how to stand, and I peered out of the window but we were fast-moving in the shooting traffic then, and I thought about winching open the door and jumping out neatly, hoping for the best, but instead I apologised, said I’d better stay until we arrived if that was all right with her.
Those “two flicks” of Eleanor’s hand embody a whole lifetime of dismissal and rejection. Boyt creates not a rebirth scene but a kind of grim anti-birth, in which the naked Eleanor returns to life only to scorn her mother. In memory, Ruth performs the roles of self-sacrificing mother and unrequited lover, her selflessness shading into something like a death wish, her care for Eleanor encompassing an apology—as if for living in the first place.
All the self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-recrimination in Ruth’s voice cannot conceal her role, in Loved and Missed, as a life-giver. “Much of my life had been spent keeping people alive, I realised”: Ruth articulates this truth long after it becomes apparent to Lily. Keeping another person alive is an act of love. Ruth says so herself: “I breathed my love onto Lily.” In Boyt’s novel, love shades into grief so imperceptibly that, in the end, it’s hard to tell the two apart. Ruth has occasion to ponder the reasons for visiting someone’s grave: “People don’t stop living just because they are dead, not entirely. You still need to love them, worry about them, console them, cheer them, humour them. Tell them when they’re wrong.” Here Ruth describes a particularly intimate form of mourning; doesn’t she also offer the definition of a good mum?
Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His essays and reviews have appeared in Raritan, All About Jazz, Poetry Flash, Senses of Cinema, Reading in Translation, and elsewhere.
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