Next month our book group will be reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. It’s Healey’s debut novel, and there’s been quite a buzz about it in the press and amongst some of the bloggers I follow. So when I saw that Waterstones Piccadilly was hosting an event with Emma on the evening of the book’s publication, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
My book-group friend and I headed into London on Thursday afternoon, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. To start the event, Emma read an extract from her book.
The novel is narrated by Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia, and we joined the novel at the point where Maud finds herself lost in a department store. In her confusion, Maud accidentally knocks an expensive Waterford crystal vase from the shelves and is accosted by a shop assistant who thinks Maud might have to pay for the damage. Healey gives us a piercing insight into the mind of a dementia sufferer as Maud struggles to remember her address. Luckily for Maud, she is rescued by her daughter, Helen, and we see how their roles have reversed over time – Helen was always running away as a child, but now it is Maud who needs to be looked after.
After the reading, literary agent Karolina Sutton chaired a discussion with Emma on the novel’s themes and influences. My note-taking skills aren’t good enough to record verbatim responses, but I hope I’ve captured the sentiment behind their conversation.
When asked about the inspiration for the book, Emma spoke of her own grandmother’s experience of dementia, and how, in the early stages of her condition, her grandmother thought someone was missing. As her grandmother’s dementia worsened, Emma was inspired to use this initial experience as a jumping-off point to explore what happens to a person as their condition deteriorates. Emma was keen to explore Maud’s logic and way of thinking – with dementia, there is so much going on under the surface and in the mind of the sufferer that others cannot see. And so Maud’s story became a means of illustrating these thoughts, one that enables us as readers to empathise with an individual who is living with the condition.
Emma also wanted to explore the experience of being a carer, which she does through Helen’s character (as an aside, Healey feels more could be done to support carers in the UK). Maud reaches the stage when she can no longer remember who Helen is, and so her connection to her daughter breaks down.
In terms of research for the dementia strand of the story, Emma looked at how dementia sufferers tend to present in the early stages of the condition. Individuals with dementia often repeat certain patterns of behaviour (and she illustrates this in the book through Maud’s purchases of several tins of peaches).
In some instances, dementia sufferers can hold on to a thought or memory until they walk through a door, only for it to disappear once they pass over the threshold. Doorways seem to be quite significant when it comes to memory and dementia, and Emma used this idea in her narrative. As a dementia sufferer’s short-term memory fades, the idea of living in the past is augmented. And so, in Elizabeth is Missing, Maud becomes more interested in her early life.
The novel’s story contains another strand, a mystery that takes us back in time to the period just after the end of the Second World War, and Healey wanted to use this as another means of exploring Maud’s condition. As Maud thinks back to her childhood, it is almost as though she’s transitioning between two worlds – the present day and her life in the 1940s. At the end of World War II, Britain was in a state of flux, and Emma felt that this period of change and turmoil in British history fitted with Maud’s state of mind in the present day. Also, a number of people disappeared or never came home after the war, and so this made the mystery element of the narrative feel quite plausible. Emma conducted much research into the post-war age by reading novels and newspapers from 1946. The 1947 British film It Always Rains on Sunday, starring Googie Withers, was a valuable reference source – in fact, a quick bit of research tells me that this film was re-released earlier this year, and a digitally-remastered version is also available on DVD.
In terms of the writing process, Elizabeth is Missing took Emma five years to write alongside a full-time job and a year of study on a creative writing course. Healey is a passionate advocate of creative writing courses and believes they are a fantastic opportunity to learn this skill – she spoke of benefiting hugely from the critical analysis of her work by other writers. From an early stage in the course of writing this book, Emma knew how the story would end, but not the full narrative from start to finish (although she clearly wanted to include a mystery element alongside the dementia theme to keep readers engaged).
While the story’s subject matter is a serious one, Karolina and Emma were keen to point out that the narrative also contains humour and isn’t as bleak as it might sound. Emma spoke of how writing the book took a tremendous amount of willpower and discipline on her part. She received much support from her partner, who brought her cups of tea in the evenings as she wrote and ensured she didn’t leave her room until she’d completed her allotted hour of writing.
There was plenty of time for questions from the audience, and the number and diversity of these questions illustrated just how much interest there is in this story and Emma’s approach to the book. The evening finished with a book signing, and Emma was very generous with her time and keen to chat as she signed. Oh, and the book itself is a thing of beauty – Viking and Penguin Books have done a terrific job with it!
All in all, it was an excellent evening – very interesting, informative and heartening. If you have an opportunity to see Emma at a future event, grab it with both hands – she’s an excellent and engaging speaker and it was a delight to meet her. And now I can’t wait to read the book! We’ll be discussing it at our book group in mid-July, so I’ll post my review near the time (update: I’ve added a link to my review here).
In the meantime, a few other bloggers have reviewed Elizabeth is Missing, so just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts: Naomi at The Writes of Women, David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread and Helen at MadaboutheBooks. It sounds as if we’ve got an excellent read to look forward to.