Review by Alice Hiley
Hannah Stevens: In Their Absence
Hannah Stevens’ In Their Absence tells the stories of missing people, exploring how their absence can impact the lives of their loved ones long after the news cycle has moved on.
Stevens prefaces the collection with the UK National Police Chiefs’ Council’s definition of a “missing person” as someone “whose whereabouts cannot be established”. The stories quickly question and expand this definition — some of the troubled characters we meet are “absent” not physically but emotionally, suffering from a buildup of loneliness and stress.
In ‘The Call of the Circus’, one of book’s opening stories, a woman in an unhappy relationship creeps out of her back garden and approaches a distant circus tent, joining the resident clowns for a drink on their night off. By showing us characters who leave their lives and families behind by choice — rather than being stolen — Stevens prompts the question: are we “missing” when no one can find us, or long before then, when we are trapped in unhappy homes?
Stevens mixes longer stories with vivid, sharp flash pieces, the reader never quite knowing what’s in store when they turn the page. Several of the characters overlap across seemingly unrelated tales, main characters reappearing later on as a witness, victim or friend. In ‘Ragdoll’, two parents on holiday lose sight of their toddler at a bar and a town-wide search unearths the body of an unknown child; the glance shared by the mum with a stranger makes us wonder whether the body belongs to the abducted child from a previous story.
Her language is blunt and precise, without unnecessary metaphor. She does not sugarcoat; “Five weeks later they buried Gabriel in a service where there was no God,” she writes in ‘Gabriel’, a story of a boy killed in a house fire. In the sadder scenes, the sparsity of each line leaves us winded. A similar abruptness is found in much of the book’s dialogue, leaving it to feel stilted at times.
In general, though, the way characters bury their flaws and suppress their regrets make them feel tangible and well-rounded.
In ‘The Moon was Low and Close’, Felix calls his partner Lydia for help after his car breaks down but has vanished by the time she arrives at the scene. In ‘Gone’, Lucas becomes so obsessed with a stranger on the bus he decides to get off at her stop and follow her. Anticlimactically, he ends up walking away; all of the tension is carried by the underlying suggestion of what could have gone wrong. So often in these stories, what is left to imagine or interpret is much more frightening than what we see unfold before us.
Some of Stevens’ stories focus on similar scenarios, such as the disappearance of a child or a husband leaving his wife. There are perhaps too many of these alike stories, risking us becoming overexposed and desensitised to the emotional subject matter. This repetition, however, made the collection’s surreal stories all the more memorable; such as ‘The Fox’, in which a woman hits an animal at night and decides to bury it in her garden, and ‘The Hottest Day’ where a groom’s brother sleeps with the bride’s mother.
‘Jessica’ is the standout story with an unnerving twist. The opening is mundane — a woman is picked up for a date by a man with wine and flowers — but we begin to realise things are not what they seem. This story’s slow, careful reveal best demonstrates Stevens’ adept pacing, building in us a sense of vague unease until the clever final line brings the relationship’s true toxicity to light.
The sudden ending of many of the stories, and of the collection as a whole, mirrors perfectly her theme of missing people. The reader is robbed of a neatly-resolved conclusion in the same way as the families of the missing are left without answers. While some stories delve into the aftermath of an abduction, exploring the psychological impact with realism and sensitivity, Stevens delivers the biggest emotional punch when she leaves readers to fill in the gaps. It is agonising to allow our imaginations to wander and picture ourselves in the situations she describes.
In Their Absence is a difficult read, especially with Sarah Everard’s death only weeks ago playing heavily on our minds and reminding women how easily our lives can be stolen. Though the aggregate violence depicted in the book can begin to take a mental toll, readers can expect to discover a thought-provoking message in each of these compact stories.
Alice studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, where she co-edited the uni’s Flash Journal. Since graduating, she has worked as a copywriter and marketing officer, as well as reviewing performances across Yorkshire for The Reviews Hub and being a member of The Writing Squad.