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Dec 18

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

What’s It About?

Maud Horsham, now in her eighties, is sliding inexorably into the foggy pit of dementia.  Her daughter, her carer and a stationery store worth of sticky notes are all that’s keeping her from completely forgetting who she is.  Unfortunately none of these things can shed light on where her best friend Elizabeth has gone.  What she does remember, with near perfect clarity, is that time after the second World War when her older sister, Sukey, vanished without a trace.  The novel alternates between Maud’s muddled search for Elizabeth and the truth behind what happened to Sukey.

Should I read it?

Probably not.  Emma Healey does a brilliant job in realising a woman suffering from dementia.  However, the story involving young Maud and the disappearance of her older sister isn’t particularly engaging and not much of a mystery.  These scenes set in the past in the end weigh down the book’s stronger elements.

Having said that, a reviewer I respect, David Hebblethwaite, unreservedly loved the novel and ranked it as his top book of the year.  So, it might be worth reading a sample to see if the novel gets under your skin just like it did with David.

Representative Paragraph

Helen is Maud’s daughter.

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 wineglass starts to topple. Helen catches it.

Commentary

There’s no doubt that Emma Healey has done a remarkable job in realising the thought process of a woman suffering from dementia.  And not just because this is her first novel.  The deftness of her prose, the way Healey is able to keep the reader engaged as Maud’s mind stumbles and drifts from sentence to sentence, is indicative of an author in control of her craft.

Not everyone agrees though.  A couple of reviewers have found issue with the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance, while others have noted that there’s something a little bit too literary, novelistic and unconvincing about Maud’s internal thoughts.

I don’t agree with these critiques.  Healey’s writing is more than just a series of well polished sentences and I never saw the whereabouts of Elizabeth as a mystery to be solved.  Rather the constant reminder that “Elizabeth Is Missing”, written on so many post it notes, plays into the novel’s key theme.  That memory is a strange and fragile thing; that we can remember the past with perfect clarity and yet completely forget the name of our daughter or best friend unless there’s someone or something to remind us.  As a portrayal of dementia it’s powerful, but as an exploration of memory it’s insightful and smart.  

My problem with the novel stems for those sections set in 1946 and the disappearance of Maud’s older sister.  Unlike the Elizabeth storyline, the question of where Sukey has gone, whether she’s run away with another man or has met a terrible fate, is most definitely framed as a mystery.  Unfortunately it’s not a very compelling one as there’s really only two suspects, Sukey’s husband Frank, who was the last person to see his wife alive, and Douglas, a lodger staying with Maud’s family who is besotted with her older sister.  It makes for dreary repetitive reading as guilt and suspicion, at least in the eyes of Young Maud, moves back and forth between the two men.  It’s also not helped by the fact that Young Maud doesn’t hold a candle to her older counterpart.  As a proto-Nancy Drew, she comes off as a little bland, a little beige.

If the novel was entirely about ageing Maud and her search for Elizabeth, if Healey had been able to sustain that voice for the length of the narrative, I would have fallen in love with Elizabeth Is Missing.  But as it stands, Healey sensitive portrayal of the tragedy that is dementia is undermined by a mystery plot that’s sadly dull and lacklustre.

3 pings

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