Reviewed by Simon Savidge
One of the biggest joys of reading is the moment when you find a book that you know is going to remain one of favourite reads for years and years to come, if not for the rest of your reading life. It may be that the prose simply sings to you, or that the subject matter chimes with something in your own life. It may hit you emotionally, or the characters may walk off the page and into your brain, nestling there and leaving you thinking about them and their story long after you have finished the book. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey’s debut novel, it was all of these things and more.
Take two mysteries, the recent disappearance of one of your closest friends and the disappearance of a family member in the past, and tell their stories through an 82 year old narrator suffering from dementia and you might have a very confusing and rather daunting read ahead of you. Not in the case of Elizabeth is Missing which, as you may have guessed, is based around that exact premise.
At the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house, but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. Also, at the beginning of the novel Maud discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back to her the mystery disappearance of her sister Sukey seventy years ago.
Whilst we find the mysteries fascinating and are eager to follow Maud as she tries to work it all out, which gives the book an element of thriller and mystery, yet this is very much a literary novel, as those around her do not feel the same, in fact they find it infuriating.
Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it. ‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’
It is through this that Healey wonderfully creates both the sides of the double edged sword of Maud’s current situation, which alongside the mysteries at its heart create a stunningly crafted novel. On the one hand we feel for Maud both in terms of her utter assurance that her friend has gone missing and in the frustration she feels at forgetting things and not being believed. On the other we see how hard it is for the carers of someone like this and how tough it can be despite how much you might love them. The situation is written and described so honestly, as sometimes you feel infuriated with Helen being infuriated with Maud, that it hits you with an emotional wallop.
Having personally been a carer for someone who was terminally ill, and someone who used to visit their great uncle with dementia, I found that the book really struck chords with me, but I think it would with any reader who has a heart, to be frank. Healey doesn’t stop there, though, as she adds depths plus light and shade by giving Elizabeth is Missing both some darkly funny parts (I cackled) and also some utterly gut wrenching ones (I cried three times, both times I read the book – yes I have read it twice I loved it so). One minute we will be laughing as Maud goes to buy another tin of peaches, then crying as she is unable to work out where home or her toilet is. Or laughing at a visit from the police before wanting to weep as her condition worsens, and she realises she is forgetting those around her, another devastating yet brilliant thing that Healey shows.
My stomach seems to have dissolved inside me. I didn’t know my own daughter, and it feels like a reproach to hear her call me Mum.
The star of the show is Healey’s writing, in her creation of such an unflinchingly vivid situation, and in her ability to put us through all the emotions that come with it, and in her creation of Maud. Both as an elderly woman with dementia and as a young naïve girl in the (brilliantly created) 1940s, she is one of my favourite characters for years, and spending time with her was an absolute joy even when the book takes its darker twists. I still think of her and this book often.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I think Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible novel. It is also a novel that looks at the elderly, of whom there are more and more as we live longer and longer and yet who we seem to shy away from discussing. Emma Healey creates an insightful, funny, touching and often heart-breaking tale of Maud and the mysteries of her life in a world she is struggling to remember. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to start it all over again the moment I had turned the last page. Highly recommended, in fact I couldn’t recommend it more, easily one of my favourite books of the year. Read it.
Simon blogs at http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/ where this review originally appeared.
Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (Penguin Viking Books, 2014), hardback, 288 pages.