“I must be dreaming, Blanche thought, as they walked toward her apartment. What could be more dreamlike than this walk down the street with a tall policeman? And, as in dreams, the faces you passed, all strangers, all strange, turned indifferently toward you and then indifferently away, and the policeman didn’t speak again after he had asked where she lived, and she didn’t speak, either, because what was the point in a dream when salvation only lay in waking up?”
Today is three-year-old Bunny Lake’s first day of preschool. But when her mother Blanche comes to pick her up that evening, Bunny isn’t there. In fact, no one at the school even remembers seeing her.
It’s a mother’s worst nightmare, but Blanche’s ordeal is just beginning. Not only are the police unable to locate Bunny, they are starting to question whether she ever really existed. Even the reader starts to wonder, as Blanche embarks upon a desperate search for her child.
That’s a great idea for a novel. Unfortunately, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a better idea than it is a novel. It is written in a twitchy, stream-of-consciousness style that is stressful to read. Every single person Blanche meets overwhelms her with the smallest details of their lives, totally unprompted. Odd parenthetical asides are constantly springing up.
“Keeping in close touch.” It sounded as if there were all the time in the world! Haste makes waste, Blanche told herself. (Mother always said that. “Haste makes waste, Blanche. You don’t get anywhere flying around like a chicken with its head cut off!”) Head cut off…Blanche jumped off the chair. “Don’t just sit there! Oh, God, you mustn’t just sit there! Those policemen outside standing around and looking—This is a helpless child, don’t you understand that?”
This could be effective for short periods to allow the reader to share in Blanche’s agitation, or even for all the sections told from Blanche’s viewpoint, as they certainly shed some light on her mental state. Having the entire story told in a tone of near-hysteria is exhausting, however. Since this approach is used for every character, it isn’t even communicating anything unique about Blanche.
I wanted to like Bunny Lake Is Missing more than I did, because it explores some fascinating ideas. One reason Blanche has such difficulty in proving her child’s existence is because Bunny was born out of wedlock. The little girl has been largely hidden from Blanche’s friends back home and even from her new boss and landlord in New York. Strangers on the street feel entitled to judge her parenting, saying, “Some people don’t deserve to have kids,” but in Blanche’s case, even her own mother agrees Bunny should never have been born. (This unseen mother looms large in Blanche’s thoughts. Mother still wants her to put Bunny up for adoption—could she have done so without Blanche’s consent?)
Blanche is trapped in a catch-22: If she has been sexually active outside of marriage, she is immoral and can’t be trusted. If she has not, it’s because she’s too neurotic, so she still can’t be trusted. Many of the people she interacts with treat her as if both are somehow true simultaneously. Even those who might believe in Bunny cannot help questioning Blanche’s skills as a young mother. She just can’t win.
It’s an interesting twist that the male police officers aren’t skeptical of Blanche because they lack knowledge of children, but quite the opposite. They are all fathers, familiar with how completely children can take over their parents’ lives. All of these men carry pictures of their children and grandchildren in their wallets, yet Blanche can’t produce even a single snapshot of Bunny. Even if it’s true that the photo albums are in storage from moving, or Bunny’s doll is off being repaired, what about the many other little objects children require? Where is Bunny’s toothbrush, her potty seat?
As Blanche chases down leads in search of her daughter, she has a number of odd experiences around New York City. Some are terrifying, like her excursion to a doll hospital whose owner takes his work a little too seriously. Others are just baffling. Her investigation is often derailed by witnesses who are distracted or lying or just off-kilter for reasons of their own, which may have nothing to do with Bunny. This is certainly realistic, but in many cases, questions are brought up without ever being resolved. As the night goes on and on, Blanche grows increasingly desperate.
He was coming closer. When he spoke again, when the next betraying, rotten, lying word came out of his mouth…He would say, “I want to help you.” As they all did. And she would shoot. It would be easy, she thought. They had made it easy, she thought. She wasn’t the girl who closed her eyes when there was going to be a killing (even in Westerns); she was a Western now; her trigger finger itched; it did. She waited almost impatiently for this final betrayal.
Since this is the 1950s, psychiatry inevitably rears its head, in the person of Dennis Newhouse. The head of Bunny’s school, Louise Benton, makes the mistake of asking her psychologist boyfriend to check in on Blanche. Newhouse is drawn to his new patient, even though he thinks she’s insane. This professional misconduct is presented as a sexy dilemma for Newhouse, the choice between sticking with his girlfriend, or pursuing a vulnerable woman who may be dangerous. He thinks it’s his choice to make, but Blanche has different ideas.
With its arresting premise, Bunny Lake Is Missing contains all the elements of an effective suspense novel. However, the execution leaves something to be desired. Readers will either love or hate the book’s unique prose style and haphazard plotting, which do succeed in creating a surreal, nightmarish tone, but which I ultimately found too off-putting.
In terms of fraught tales of suspense, Bunny Lake is Missing is a knockout. It places Blanche Lake in a desperate quest to find her daughter, then twists the knife when no one is willing to believe her. The anxiety ramps up as more and more time goes by and fewer people are willing to help in the search for a missing girl who many don’t believe exists, a creeping feeling of terror and panic which is conveyed from character to reader by its claustrophobic and intense prose. Readers who enjoy a heaping dose of suspense may love this riveting novel: it keeps you guessing about Blanche’s state of mind as her search goes careening out of control.
I think a clue to what the reader is supposed to take away and to what makes this a feminist novel can be found in the title. A real or imagined child is missing. Her mother has to prove she exists in order to find her. In a larger sense, Bunny is missing from the realm of acceptable children. Her mother must prove she has a right to legitimately exists–something the other mothers at the day care center do not have to do. Bunny’s illegitimacy and the way this keeps her outside of the realm of ‘normal’ children is tied up in her abduction and in her mother’s search for her. By the end of the novel finding Bunny Lake, proving she exists, will prove she has a right to exists as well.
Sarah Weinman, Merriam Modell: Domestic Suspense’s Reluctant Pioneer
The life of the real woman behind the “Evelyn Piper” pseudonym.
Bunny Lake Is Missing is available in paperback and ebook formats in the US and paperback in the UK from the Feminist Press.
The 1965 film version keeps the basic premise, but moves the action to swinging London, along with several other big changes. If you’ve read the book, you’ll still be surprised by the film and vice versa.