The Missing Word
by Concita De Gregorio
Reviewed by Nicole Yurcaba
The Missing Word comes to the English-speaking world thanks to the careful, poetic translation by Clarissa Botsford. It’s a moving, intense novel, one whose short chapters and fluid, flowing lines sweep readers into the maelstrom of loss. Readers meet Irina, a mother who, years after the mysterious disappearance of her twin daughters—Alissa and Livia—still grieves for them. In Irina’s story, love, loss, hopelessness, and hope swirl together as readers follow the tragic metaphorical and literal journeys she makes as she processes her grief and reshapes her life. Contributing to the novel’s swift, yet alluring pace is Irina’s intimate, poetic tone—one that makes readers feel as though they are Irina’s closest friend, sitting across from her and sharing this cherished, confidential space with her. Sometimes that space consists of past reflections; at other times, it consists of a private revelation on Irina’s part—the disclosure of a letter to her “Dearest Nonna.” At other times, it appears in the memorable one-line, philosophical insights Irina offers, which transport readers into the quiet, reflective places inside them: “It’s incredible how much pain we can inflict, convinced we’re acting for the best.”
While The Missing Word is, undoubtedly, Irina’s story, it is also so much more. It blends social criticisms regarding the treatment of women in European society and society’s dismissals of women’s claims about domestic abuse with a psychological (but not clinical) examination of the role memory plays in the lives of victims of severely traumatic events. From the novel’s initial chapter, readers gain a deeper insight to Irina’s own grief process as she recalls the events that led to her daughters’ disappearance. Readers are swept into tight passages that read like tiny poems inserted amidst the prose:
These reflections not only give readers insight into Irina’s character and mental state, but they also demand that readers pause, read, and re-read, because the passages are eloquently beautiful, deeply profound, and worthy of more than a mere glance.
While the conversations about the treatment of women, an individual’s response to trauma, and the individual grieving process lie at the novel’s forefront, The Missing Word also offers unique takes on more personal issues like love. Readers observe Irina’s acceptance of the affections of Luis, a man who enters her life quietly, but suddenly, and changes everything. The opposite of her controlling ex-husband Mathias, Luis offers Irina something she is afraid and hesitant to accept—hope and happiness. However, as the novel progresses and readers ride her emotional rollercoasters, they see her transform into a gentler version of herself as she learns to accept Luis’s generosity and affections. At these points, Irina offers readers small wisdoms that might at first seem commonplace, but her take on them makes them more than just everyday advice. She reminds readers that “Love is fragile” and appears as “something so magic that you need to be really careful.” This care has to be applied in how one says things, because otherwise love “fades, it dies.” Later, she offers readers tidbits of wisdom regarding happiness: “Life is very simple. To be happy, you need very little. To be happy, you need hardly anything. Nothing, in any case, that is not already inside you.”
Irina’s complexities are what make her memorable, admirable, a heroine for these difficult times. Her grief is surely one that will haunt readers long after they have left The Missing Word’s pages. Her determination reminds readers that the search is never-ending: “Searching, traveling, seeing trying to understand what the bigger picture is. This is the only thing we can do.” Her succinctly documented grief prompts readers to remember that to fully heal, if one ever fully heals, one must grieve on their own terms, in their own time. Her ultimate message is clear, nonetheless—that the nameless should be given names, that the utmost efforts should be put forth to find the lost: “Because having a name means having a place, a home, made up of thoughts that have already been thought.” Her struggles and endeavors nudge readers to consider their own place in the context of not only their lives, but also history and the world, and how quickly that place can disappear.
The Missing Word is relevant but timeless, necessary and haunting. Very rarely is it that I pick up a novel and cannot put it down. Usually, twenty minutes in, I find myself placing the bookmark on whatever page I’ve landed, telling myself I need a glass of water or to use the bathroom. Then, I distract myself with a glance through my Twitter feed, my cats sleeping on the sofa, or whatever other mundanity the day offers. However, I began reading Concita De Gregorio’s The Missing Word late one night, and from the first chapter, I knew that I was not going to be able to put down this book. I had to, nonetheless. I had to be at the office at 0730 the next day. That doesn’t mean I didn’t close my office door the next day and finish the book in the span of a couple hours, because maybe, just maybe, I did.
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, and she frequently reviews books for Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Southern Review of Books, and Sage Cigarettes. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from Black Spring Group in 2022, and her novel Unsilent Waters is forthcoming from the Rusyn Literary Society in January 2023. She teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College.