The Missing Girl
by Jacqueline Doyle
Published 2017 by Black Lawrence Press
$8.95 paperback ISBN 978-1-62557-983-6
By Wesley Cohen
In her interview for Speaking of Marvels, Jacqueline Doyle describes the fascination behind her new fiction chapbook The Missing Girl: “For a long while I was haunted by stories of abused or murdered or missing girls.”
The Missing Girl feels like the product of a haunting, an author’s obsession: the collection is claustrophobic in its focus on sexual violence against girls and women. The language is immediate, spare, and aggressive.
Plenty of authors share Doyle’s obsession—“Girl” books are having a heyday—and the fascination with missing girls has already been thoroughly probed. Nonetheless, The Missing Girl’s flashbulb stories feel fresh.
Perhaps it’s “My Blue Heaven” that takes the most novel approach to the oft-described murdered or missing girl. The story inscribes a narrative around Molly, a teenage girl murdered by her adult lover, by weaving together perspectives from her best friend Lizbeth, her male murderer Vern, his wife Edna, and the clerk of the motel where Vern has sex with Molly and then kills her. Together the many tellings of Molly’s death show the way that this missing girl becomes a symbol, a story, an absence held up and examined from every angle, and shows how outside the archetypal pair of perpetrator and victim, man and girl, there are often other people standing, watching, complicit.
“Something Like That,” is another standout piece. Instead of a girl gone missing, here it is the men who are obscured, blending together as a young woman lists off the attacks and indignities of girlhood. The story has a terrific rhythm and momentum, gathering speed without paragraph breaks and with minimal punctuation:
They said I was lucky nothing really happened, not like the girl down the hall who dropped out. And I guess nothing really happened, at least not compared to high school, when I thought I was in love, at least he said he loved me, and then two of his friends showed up when we were making out in the back seat of his car, and they did things to me, and all three of them laughed and called me a slut. Everyone at school was calling me a slut that year.
Throughout, the stories pinball back and forth between the perspective of the victim and the perpetrator, the abused and the abuser. The effect is dizzying, “He said, she said” writ large.
But in a collection that sets out to explore the phenomenon of The Missing Girl, and is specifically dedicated to missing girls, it’s difficult to account for the stories that continue to erase their experiences and perspectives, as their bodies, uniformly blonde and pale, are disappeared from street corners and into strange cars and silent woods. While Doyle achieves a fascinating narrative effect from sharing victims’ perspectives alongside those of murderers, kidnappers, and rapists, showing these missing girls only through the eyes of their attackers, outlined by male memories and projections and desires, feels like yet another way these girls are made missing.
Through these stories run veins of obfuscation and disbelief, with victims and perpetrators alike lying about their stories, leaving out crucial details, or forgetting what has happened. Time and trauma wear down these narratives into collections of images, disconnected, whose contexts are unclear.
The chapbook’s final offering, “Nola,” is its most rewarding. Here, the narrator is a woman, not a girl, and she looks back on a crime she may have committed against another girl when she was still a child. Doyle doubles down on the uncertainty that makes her previous stories so unsettling, but allows her characters to break out of the adult-male-perpetrator/female-child-victim matrix, letting the crime—the protagonist tying up her friend Nola in the woods as part of a game and then leaving her there—take on more complexity, and letting the narrator exist as a more complete character. Unable to find proof of Nola’s disappearance online or figure out whether Nola ever made it back home, the narrator, now a grandmother, is haunted by apparitions of Nola on the street and dreams of her each night.
Like “Nola”’s narrator, readers of The Missing Girl can expect to find themselves haunted by these stories for days after they set the chapbook down.