Naming Names

The Missing Girl by Jacqueline Doyle
Black Lawrence Press (September 19, 2017)
Reviewed by Zoë Ballering

Cover of "The Missing Girl"- pale orange melts into a deep red, a black dress hangs from a white hanger, a piece cut out from its center

“The dark spot by the road that you might not notice at all is, you see, the beginning of everything. There is a clump of elders there as used to grow beside the road before our house back in Winseburg, Ohio, and in among the elders there is something hidden. It is a woman, that’s what it is.”

–Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Jacqueline Doyle’s The Missing Girl opens with the above epigraph by Sherwood Anderson, reminding the reader that darkness is, in fact, where everything begins. In the series of shorts that make up Doyle’s collection, we are plunged into darkness again and again. Harm befalls young women with so little notice and so much ease: they are plucked off the side of the road, shot by their lovers, and ignored when they say their names. In short, Doyle’s protagonists go missing—an act of repetition that Doyle manages to portray in terms that are heartbreakingly unique.

One of the tricks in The Missing Girl is its manipulation of perspective. The title story, for example, makes use of a second person point of view that twists, in the course of two pages, into the “you” you never wanted to be. The narrator sees a poster for a missing girl and seems to imagine her in sympathetic terms. Then sympathy twists into callousness, callousness into lust, lust into memory, and suddenly you—the narrator—are remembering a girl named Early Halliday whom you drove into the darkness and away from life. It’s a masterful deterioration that Doyle manages in the space of a few hundred words.

Yet the “you” in The Missing Girl is never static. In “Hula,” a young woman on a trip to Hawaii is picked up by a fellow vacationer who grows increasingly boorish and menacing. “Hula” closes on a heartbreaking note, showing how erasure always precedes violence:

Let’s hula, baby, he says, pushing you toward the door, one hand still under your elbow, the other gripping your waist…  And now you answer his question. My name’s Lucy, you say. Lucy. But people are talking loud and howling with laughter and you’re not sure he even hears.

Whereas the title story allows the narrator’s intentions to sharpen as the story progresses, “Hula” presents an accelerating blur. You—the narrator—drunk and possibly drugged, can see the bad thing coming, but you can’t find a way to change how the story ends.

There’s always the risk in these types of stories that readers will partake in a form of literary rubbernecking—gaping at blood and guts as they pass by, unscathed and unchanged. Doyle circumvents this risk in two ways. First, her shifting first and second person points of view holds the reader close. Second, she insists on naming names. In “Hula,” Lucy announces herself; the story allows her to speak her name so that someone hears. And The Missing Girl, as a whole, is full of protagonists defiantly naming themselves: Eula Johnson, Early Halliday, Molly, Kelly, Nola. Perhaps this emanates from Doyle’s second epigraph, a quote from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The quote reminds us that missing children are never forgotten. No name, insists Doyle, can ever truly be erased.

In another story titled “Something Like That,” a narrator wrestles with whether she lied about an experience of sexual assault:

So maybe it didn’t happen to me in exactly that way with exactly those boys on exactly that night. But things have happened to me, on nights like that, with boys like that.

This character’s reflection, both wounded and confused, may serve as the keystone to the collection as a whole. Too often, violence against women is rendered as an act of nameless repetition. In beautiful yet economical prose, Doyle takes the haziness of “nights like that, with boys like that” and imbues each scene and story with horrifying specificity. Women receive names, wills, bodies, and desires, even as Doyle charts their absence. The result is hard to read, perhaps, but harder to put down.

ZOË BALLERING is in the midst of completing her MFA at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. She’s currently writing her thesis, a collection of short stories of speculative fiction dealing with themes of physical and emotional pain and how pain finds (or fails to find) expression through language.

Featured image titled “disappear” by Xava du