Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

This is Healey’s first novel and I think it is a good one. I was recommended to read it by a friend who said the narration was very unique and she was right. The main character and narrator is Maud, an elderly woman who suffers from dementia (technically unspecified but we assume that it is some form of senility similar to, if not specifically, dementia). This makes her a very unreliable narrator; she frequently forgets what she’s doing and is unable to recollect things that happened only a few hours, or even minutes, earlier. Maud reminded me very much of my own Grandma who unfortunately suffers from many of the same traits as Maud. Maud (and my Grandma!) frequently repeats questions or stories, she forgets appointments and uses little scraps of paper to note everything down to help her remember – the problem being that she can’t always remember why she made the note or when it was from, so she is frequently puzzled by her own notes. This is sometimes frustrating as a reader because, like all narrators who are obviously unreliable, you can’t always tell what has happened.

However this works very well as a device within the story, as not only is Maud’s friend Elizabeth missing, but so is her sister, Sukie. Or rather I should say, Sukie disappeared several decades ago and the parallel mysteries are developed interchangeably throughout the novel. Maud sometimes confuses details from years ago with the present day yet her memories from the post-war period of her childhood are crystal clear. The reader is mostly saved from any confusion about the time periods by distinct sections. The story gets more and more intriguing as it progresses and sadly as Maud deteriorates.

The novel touches on some interesting themes. Memory, of course, but also family and the bonds that tie us together. The relationship between Maud and her daughter, Helen, is one that I imagine many people can relate to. Thirdly is the ‘theme’ of old age. Too infrequently are the main characters of novels over ‘middle age’ and it is refreshing and original to have a novel which shows a different perspective. It definitely made me think more carefully about what it must be like to be in the situation when your mind starts to let you down and to feel more sympathetic towards my own grandmother, who at times can be very frustrating and it is easy to forget that she never intends to be that way! I found some events in the novel particularly hard to read, such as when Maud goes to the police station and is mocked because it is the fourth time she’s been there to report the same thing or when the doctor is called to the house but neither the doctor or Maud’s daughter believe that there is anything the matter. Then there are the moments of clarity when Maud is herself and perhaps realises the extent of her memory loss but is helpless to do anything about it. They are a painfully sensitive window into Maud’s psyche and are very well written to evoke such empathy.

This is a compassionate and original debut novel. Well worth a read.

 

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