The Missing Word
By Concita De Gregorio
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford
131 pages, $16.00
Irina is an Italian lawyer living in Switzerland with her husband Mathias and their two daughters, Alessia and Livia. Their marriage ends after years of tension, and they maintain a relatively cordial relationship for the benefit of the girls. But one weekend Mathias fails to bring the girls back. They’ve disappeared. Then Mathias’s body is found, an apparent suicide. But where are the girls? Dead, lost, hidden?
In The Missing Word, journalist and broadcaster Concita De Gregorio imagines Irina’s life following this traumatic event. In a fragmented first-person narrative, De Gregorio puts us in the mind of a mother bereft of her children and relentlessly searching for them. She examines everything and everyone in an attempt to stitch together an explanation and find the girls, even if, as she eventually concedes, they are dead.
There are letters to her husband, friend, therapist, and grandmother, as well as to the girls’ teacher, a prosecutor, and a judge (asking her to review the inconclusive investigation). In short chapters, Irina writes psychologically revealing lists titled “Anger,” “Happiness,” “Words,” and “Memory.” But the heart of the story is contained in chapters focusing on episodes past and present involving Mathias, the nanny, Irina’s mother-in-law, her brother and father, and her new boyfriend, Luis.
The Missing Word is a riveting and heartbreaking exploration of parental love, memory, and the saving grace of words. But the missing word is one that describes a mother who has lost her children.
“Absence besieged me, like an army would a fortified citadel. It rained arrows and cannonballs on me, waiting for nightfall, exploiting my weaknesses, seeking them out in order to conquer me. It wore me down with the waiting, because, you know, Your Honor, waiting for your loved ones is not a parenthesis; it’s a monstrously tiring, never-ending occupation, a battle against your worst possible thoughts. It’s a space that fills with monsters and creeps up on you from behind. Years go by, minutes stand still. Time flies, but every passing moment reminds you that you would rather have spent, or should have spent, that very same moment with your loved ones, them and only them, because no one else will ever be the same, and so, why aren’t they there? If they’re not here, where else could they be, and why? Why? That is the question no book, no place, no drug, no psychic can explain.” (pp. 66-67)