Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)

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One really good book I recently finished (and haven’t really reviewed here) was called “Elizabeth is Missing” by Emma Healey. Called a “darkly riveting debut novel, a sophisticated psychological mystery…”, this was a really enjoyable (and quite challenging) read. Expectations were also raised with a cover blurb from Deborah Moggach (whose work I usually love) who wrote “I read it at a gulp.” And you know what? I did “read it in a gulp” (or at least what counts for a gulp in my reading life). This was great.

It’s a novel (combining itself with these other genres) about one elderly woman called Maud who suffers from dementia who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing. But when you have dementia (quite advanced, it seems), how do you convince your family that your friend really IS missing and that it’s not just part of your illness speaking? (Or is she really missing?)  Who is to judge what is reality and memory, and how to portray that? It was a fascinating and complex read.

To try to solve this and to check on her friend’s well-being, Maud visits Elizabeth’s house – but is she there? Or not there? Maud tries to track her steps with a system of notes and of spotting rocks on the pavement, but that leads to complications: did someone move the rock? Was that the same rock as she had spotted last time? Was this the right street? Which note has the right and most recent information? Did she need to get peach slices from the corner shop? (Peach slices get some mentions in this book.)

With an unreliable memory as a leading part of the narrative, the reader remains puzzled as well. Maud’s family are helping her with her day-to-day life, but there are struggles on both sides: Maud fighting to retain her freedom and to solve this mystery about Elizabeth, her family fighting to keep Maud “safe” by getting her moved to an assisted care home. Kudos to her daughter (Maud’s caregiver) for being so kind and patient.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets enmeshed into this complex maze where past and present fuse together, where reality and dreams are intertwined, and where it’s just plain hard to know what is what.

And then, to add a third string to the narrative, a third story is added of a vague memory of Maud’s about something that happened 70 years ago. It’s in the flashbacks to the past where Maud gets to shine as she has no trouble recounting her earlier life when she was a child and her sister Sukey went missing. Was Sukey murdered? Did she run away?

This intriguing interplay of time and reality, between clear details of the past and murky details of the present creates a tension of sorts for the reader, and I loved it. It was very hard to put the book down, and when I did, I ended up thinking about Maud and her life.

I think that you’ll love this if you’re ok with unreliable narrators and books that have multiple strings going on with their plots. I’d suggest reading this one in big chunks to keep up, but don’t worry. It reads very quickly due to some excellent writing. Healey is an expert with using language at its best and making Maud someone who you care about.

Loved it.

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