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Elizabeth Is Missing: Who Killed Sukey?

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This post has lingered in my mind for a few years; it seems somewhat old now to discuss the question but I know that if I don’t, I’ll just keep thinking about it.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing is a novel with a varied sort of storytelling. Told in the first person by Maud, the main aspect of it is Maud’s present life, her deterioration through dementia. The other part of it covers Maud’s childhood, which she is looking back on. The variety comes from the dementia; due to Maud’s fading memory, the two narratives aren’t always linear, sections often cover the same details as before, and those that are repeated are subject to changed details due to the dementia. Just in terms of its structure it’s a fantastic book.

The core question of the book, if viewed in its entity, is how much really concerns Maud’s worries about Elizabeth, and how much is actually Maud’s worries about Sukey mixed up with the ‘idea’ of Elizabeth (not that Elizabeth isn’t a real person). It’s this that fascinated me most during my re-read for this post, the way the narratives are both separate and the same, and the way it comes together at the end to be the same but separate.

In working out what happened to Sukey, it’s a good idea to ignore the majority of the present-day sections at least until a fair way through the book – skimming the present-day sections for references to Sukey, Douglas, Frank, and Maud’s parents is important, but generally only paramount towards the end.

Considering Maud’s dementia, however, everything has to be read with a thought to the idea of a pinch of salt – not everything is likely true but at the same time nothing should be disregarded, even past the last page. We have to be the detective Maud can only wish to be.

The story of Sukey’s disappearance just after World War II is given piece meal, but here’s an attempt to put the potential facts in order:

  • Sukey met Douglas at work; she liked him; she arranged for him to be her family’s lodger.
  • Douglas’ house had been bombed and he had nowhere to live.
  • Douglas’ mother wouldn’t leave her house and he had a difficult time getting her to leave. She was severely effected by the bombing.
  • Sukey met Frank and later marries him; Frank had inherited a removal’s business and has connections to the black market where he gets extra food for Sukey’s family, food they are not entitled to in this time of rationing.
  • Sukey and Frank’s house is full of old furniture because Frank thinks they might sell it.
  • Sukey still sees Douglas – Douglas lies about going to the cinema and on one occasion when Sukey was over, he left a little after her.
  • Sukey knows about Douglas’ mother; Douglas says she cared about her, but we readers know that she didn’t.
  • The smashed gramophone records in the garden turned out to be the result of a row between Douglas and Sukey.
  • When Sukey disappeared, it seemed she’d last been seen at a hotel, only the receptionist later told Maud that Frank had signed Sukey in and Sukey hadn’t been seen by anyone. Frank had left that night.
  • Neighbours reported shouting in the street, and one said Sukey had always had men over (Douglas it seems).
  • Douglas kept going ‘to the cinema’ but in reality he was going to the pavilion where he had met up with Sukey, thinking she might turn up there.
  • While all this was going on, Douglas had been feeding the ‘mad woman’, his mother, who is later run over by a car.

This is not everything, but it’s the basics. The rest concerns the family search and Maud’s interactions with Frank, which show to the reader a potentially violent man, confirming others’ descriptions of him as often drunk. As Healey writes everything from Maud’s perspective, which has the added ‘hindrance’ of a child’s mind together with the older woman’s forgetfulness, the details arrive slowly and without the benefit of real understanding. When Frank pushes Maud against the banister, she glimpses the possibility of him wanting to throw her down the stairs but instead takes in his talk about trying to stop her falling. She tells him all she knows about Sukey when he tells her he misses her – when, whilst the full reason isn’t revealed to the reader, we can see manipulation and Frank wanting to make sure he’s covered all the bases. We can also see a potential feeling of guilt, which is at once also shot through with violence.

It’s very possible to say Frank killed Sukey and that he was jealous – Healey pitches Douglas as a red herring but tells the reader straight at the end when he’s named as the prime suspect. Frank had access to the new housing estate, and designed the planting areas, which would have given him the ability to make sure they were away from where he had buried Sukey. The house appears to have been sold to Elizabeth who at some point in time became Maud’s friend. We do not know where Elizabeth’s arrival comes into play, but if Frank planted marrows in the garden(s) he ‘designed’, then Maud unconsciously put two and two together.

At the same time, that Douglas seemed to know a lot…

It would seem possible that Sukey never made it to the car that was supposedly outside the hotel; she may well have been killed in her house. If so, it is slightly possible that Douglas’ mother, the mad woman who Sukey doesn’t like, killed her. If Maud is to believed, there were birds found in the burial place, and this brings Healey’s use of birds through the book to a close; birds certainly seem to be symbols, for one thing they are a theme in terms of Douglas’ mother.

Frank’s going to London ensured the idea of her having gone with him would take hold, and Maud’s worry about the idea that Sukey may have left Frank in the same way lots of people left their spouses after the war, didn’t have anything to do with it. Frank may have made the trip to London as a cover up or because he knew he’d be blamed (in the case that he didn’t do it).

At some point Maud’s story of Sukey gets blended with Elizabeth’s – it may be that Sukey’s house was not cluttered with furniture and that Maud was thinking of the time Elizabeth’s house was sold. Sukey’s clothes may or may not have been in the suitcase. Maud and Sukey may or may not have had a nice time on the beach as children.

What exactly happened to Sukey we don’t know, we just know the aftermath: the skeleton in the garden with a fracture in its head.

One thing to think about, though – what was all that about Sukey being buried by Maud in the sand, but then Sukey having buried Maud first and Maud not having liked it? And the sea shells which later became fingernails… perhaps, with this, the parting vignette of the book, Healey is suggesting another culprit entirely, one who did at points seem jealous of Sukey’s relationship with Frank…

This, and the remaining possible killers, certainly align with the memory loss narrative. I kind of want to end this post on a note of touché, Ms Healey…

 
 

Mary Mayfield

October 25, 2018, 7:29 pm

It’s certainly an interesting theory. For myself, I was rushing the last few pages as the book hadn’t particularly enthralled me, so I might easily have missed any clues there.

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