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Emma Healey – Elizabeth Is Missing

Book Cover

Or is she?…

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-00350-3
First Published: 13th March 2014 (in translation); 5th June 2014
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Maud can’t seem to get through to her family (or anyone else for that matter) that her friend is missing. Everyone says that nothing is wrong, that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but all the signs seem to point towards the opposite. As a child post-WWII, Maud lost her sister, Sukey, and as she goes about her search she remembers this.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a rather excellent novel about old age and the way others treat the elderly.

Our narrator, accidentally unreliable, is an octogenarian who has become very forgetful. Maud thinks the same things over and over, says the same things, and forgets where she is moment by moment. It is in the details that Healey shows us what she is trying to get across: it’s all very well getting frustrated by those who forget, but remember to view things from their perspective. Maud is patronised and knows she is patronised; she also knows that no one is listening to her even when they should. And the reader knows, even when Maud doesn’t notice, that people are not respecting her, are laughing at her. In amongst this is the question of care homes, of old age care in general, and how the wishes of the person should be respected.

Healey’s writing of Maud is simply incredible. She is believable and, though it does not matter in regards to whether it would affect the tale, very likeable. Because you’re on this journey with her, in her head, you don’t feel any frustration or boredom; Healey makes you understand what it is like. You’re able to chastise Maud’s daughter, Helen, for not listening to her mother (whilst understanding the pressure Helen is under); you’re able to think up the rest of what Maud should say yet be satisfied that she does not say it.

Maud’s memory isn’t static – Healey’s story incorporates the progression of memory loss. She manages to make you feel upbeat whilst you begin to loiter on the edges of upset for the character. Something that is never answered (this is not a drawback) is how long we are with Maud. It’s plausible that we spend a few weeks or months but it could just as easily be days.

The structure of the book is quite simply genius. It makes you keep questioning what snippets of information relate to which part of the story, and of course, ultimately, you have to decide which versions of Maud’s many retellings are true. It’s prudent to say that this book isn’t a thriller in the usual sense – ‘thriller’ is the description on the book, but it’s far from edge-of-seat nail-biting drama. You soon work out a few possibilities for Elizabeth and none of them are particularly amazing. The page-turning factor of this book lies in the way Healey makes you want to stick around, to hang out with her expertly-written main character.

What you may find irritating is the almost predictable way no one will tell Maud where Elizabeth is even when it’s obvious they know. There are two points to this withholding. The first is that there would be no story if people told Maud where her friend is. Of course. And as much as this in itself is obvious, you have to just accept that you’re going to have to keep reading to find out for certain, even if you don’t feel it’s much to look forward to. The second point is that it makes perfect sense no one is telling Maud where Elizabeth is. Maybe they have; she’ll have forgotten. Maybe they don’t because they’re sick of repeating themselves. Maybe, if Elizabeth is dead (which is of course possible given her age) they don’t want to upset her. The end of the book is very much a look at the entirety of this second point.

The second ‘plot’, then, concerns the disappearance of Maud’s sister. It’s a long time before the reason for its inclusion, its creation, comes to light. You’re invited to feel confused and perhaps a bit miffed that Sukey gets all this time when the book is about Elizabeth. This plot is confined to Maud’s childhood so the book is effectively part historical fiction. Maud’s long-term memory allows her to tell the reader about this period of her life in a generally usual way.

The only shortcoming can be found in the words Healey uses for Maud’s own descriptions. Some of the terms are too modern or colloquial and not what a British person of Maud’s age would use. These terms are therefore jarring and can pull you out of the text for a bit if you’re susceptible to them (for example, this may not affect American readers but it is going to affect British readers old enough to have witnessed the introduction of the terms). This, however, is a minor issue overall.

Elizabeth Is Missing is driven by all three ‘drivers’ – character, plot, and society. (I realise society isn’t generally thought of but this book’s commentary on issues requires it.) It’s fabulously character-driven, slow but steadily plot-driven, and what it offers for thought will stay with you for a long time and likely affect the way you think and deal with others (or at least make you constantly aware). It’s not going to take you on a whirlwind journey – Maud can’t take the bus with you alone – but it is going to leave you highly satisfied no matter what conclusions you reach in regards to the excellent and superbly devised climax. (Some questions are left unanswered, but there are enough hints.)

Take your place at Maud’s side and prepare to take note of when the gas needs to be turned off and when the kettle’s on the boil. This is a journey without travel and one you’re likely to enjoy very, very much.

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March 23, 2015, 4:24 pm

I am pleased to hear you enjoyed this, it does sound really good.

Literary Feline

March 23, 2015, 10:56 pm

I am glad you enjoyed this one, Charlie. I still do not know if I will read it. I’m curious, but at the same time, am not sure I want to read about a woman with dementia. It hits too close to home.



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