Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (review)

Elizabeth is Missing, Healey’s impressive debut novel, is narrated by Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia. The book opens with a brief prologue set in the present day in which Maud finds the broken lid of an old make-up compact in her friend, Elizabeth’s, garden. It’s an item Maud recognises from a lifetime ago, one that triggers memories of a mystery from her past:

The broken lid of an old compact, its silver tarnished, its navy-blue enamel no longer glassy but scratched and dull. The mildewed mirror is like a window on a faded world, like a porthole looking out under the ocean. It makes me squirm with memories.

‘What have you lost?’ The woman steps, precarious and trembling, out on to the patio. ‘Can I help? I might not be able to see it, but I can probably manage to trip over it if it’s not too well hidden.’

I smile, but I don’t move from the grass. Snow has collected on the ridges of a shoeprint and it looks like a tiny dinosaur fossil freshly uncovered. I clutch at the compact lid in my hand, soil tightening my skin as it dries. I’ve missed this tiny thing for nearly seventy years. And now the earth, made sludgy and chewable with the melting snow, has spat out a relic. Spat it into my hand. But where from? That’s what I can’t discover. Where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal? (pgs. 1-2, Viking)

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As the story itself gets going, we begin to build a picture of Maud’s day-to-day life with dementia. Maud’s short-term memory is poor, so she forgets when she’s eaten or made a cup of tea, and she often finds herself disoriented and at a loss as to her intentions. This results in her eating too much toast, leaving several cups of tea to go cold and buying far too many tins of sliced peaches when she forgets what she needs at the shops. Dementia sufferers often repeat certain patterns of behaviour, and Healey illustrates this through Maud’s tangle of thoughts and movements. Here’s Maud as she struggles while shopping for food:

Eggs. Milk – question mark – Chocolate.’ I turn my bit of paper about to catch the light. There’s a cosy cardboardy smell in the shop and it’s like being in the larder at home. ‘Eggs, milk, chocolate. Eggs, milk, chocolate.’ I say the words, but I can’t quite think what the things look like. Could they be in any of the boxes in front of me? I carry on muttering the list under my breath as I shuffle about the shop, but the words begin to lose meaning and are like a chant. I’ve got ‘marrows’ written down here too, but I don’t think they sell them here. (pg 7)

As a reminder of what to do (and what to avoid doing), Maud scribbles notes to herself which she keeps in her pockets.  And additional notes are dotted around Maud’s house, courtesy of her daughter, Helen, and carer, Carla: ‘coffee helps memory’, ‘lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m.’. However, Maud often struggles to make sense of her paper memory, as she finds it hard to recall the meaning of these jottings.  And Maud is especially troubled by some of her notes, the ones concerning her friend Elizabeth: ‘no word from Elizabeth’, ‘haven’t heard from Elizabeth.’ Consequently, Maud is convinced that Elizabeth is missing and that something terrible may have happened to her, especially when she finds her friend’s house empty and in the process of being cleared.

Maud sets about trying to get to the bottom of Elizabeth’s apparent disappearance, (frustrating her daughter in the process) and this theme forms one of two strands that run through the novel. The other thread concerns a mystery from Maud’s past, one signalled by the broken compact Maud unearths in the prologue. This vanity case belonged to Maud’s older sister, Sukey, who disappeared suddenly in the years following the end of the Second World War. At the time of her disappearance, Sukey was relatively newly-married to Frank, a rather shady removals operator with a lucrative sideline in the movement of black-market goods.

Despite Maud’s difficulty in remembering things from the present day, her long-term memory is much sharper, considerably more vivid, and the story moves back in time as Maud recalls the events surrounding Sukey’s vanishing. There’s some neat period detail and dialogue here, elements that feel true to Britain in the 1940s (as far as I can tell from my experience of novels and films produced at this time).

The narrative alternates between Maud’s present-day search for Elizabeth and the post-war years as Maud and her family look for Sukey. In general, Healey manages the transitions between these two timeframes quite skilfully; for example, Maud will see an object that transports her back to a particular scene from her past, one in which the same item (or a similar one) appears.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Healey ties the two strands together, although the way in which this happens feels a little implausible. I guessed where the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance was heading before our arrival at the resolution, and consequently, this element of the story could have been a little more compelling, more intriguing.

These are fairly small quibbles, however. Elizabeth is Missing is a very good debut, ultimately very moving and not without humour (despite the distress of Maud’s condition). Where this novel really excels is in its depiction of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman living with dementia, and we see how the mental and physical effects of dementia take their toll on Maud:

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 quick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other, and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it.

‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

I don’t answer; my teeth are still tight together. I feel I might start screaming, but breaking something, that’s a good idea. That’s exactly what I want to do. I pick up my butter knife and stab it into the black side plate. The china breaks. Helen says something, swearing I think, and somebody rushes towards me. I keep looking at the plate. (pgs. 18-19)

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Elizabeth is Missing is our book group’s choice for July, and I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion about it when we meet later this week. A couple of us were lucky enough to attend an event where Emma spoke of the book’s themes and sources of inspiration – there’s a link to my write-up of the evening here if you’re interested.

Several 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, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library, Susan at A Life in Books and Helen at MadaboutheBooks.

Elizabeth is Missing is published in the UK by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

19 thoughts on “Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (review)

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Impressive for a debut, this one seems to be well covered and enjoyed by all, always an added bonus to hear the author reading and have a connection. Off to check out your evening with the author post now before its time to get ready for an evening out and watching the fireworks.

    Vive La France!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, Claire, it’s a very good debut, and it’ll be interesting to see what she writes next. So many people seem to have enjoyed it, and it was great to hear Emma speak about her approach to writing this novel. A book with a wide appeal, I think.

      Enjoy the Bastille Day celebrations and fireworks!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Cheers, Naomi, and I love the lines you quoted in your review!

      Haha, not at all – I just had a hunch where it was heading…I wonder if the other members of my book group could tell? I’ll find out later this week…

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you. So many readers appear to have enjoyed it, and I remained engaged throughout the story (despite the minor reservations I mentioned).

      Reply
  2. Col

    I enjoyed review and like sound of the book. Will add it to my ever growing list! It resonates with story heard from colleague about man in one of their care homes who had dementia and went ‘missing’ for a while. I’m trying to turn it into a story of my own but without much success so figure wil be better off reading this instead!!!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s good to hear, thank you. I very much enjoyed this book, albeit with a couple of small reservations.

      Oh, that’s interesting – wishing you all the best with your story! Perhaps this book will help or provide a spark in some way…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Another great review Jacui. I have heard such good things about this book from other bloggers too.

    I find it intriguing how Healey attempted to get into Maud’s head as she deals with her ailment. Based on your commentary it seems like she did a superb job of this. In my opinion, attempting to convey such experiences, is one of the primary reasons for writing as well as reading.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. Yes, it seems to have been a hit with several bloggers.

      Yes, I think Healey really has tried to get into the mind of a woman living with dementia. Although I can’t know for sure, based on my knowledge of dementia I think she’s pulled this off very effectively. At the author event with Emma, she spoke of her own grandmother’s experience with dementia. Another four members of her family also lived with the condition, and I’m sure she’s drawn on this understanding in constructing Maud’s character. From what I know of dementia, Maud’s behaviour is highly characteristic of the condition, and so I believe Healey’s captured what going on in Maud’s head, too.

      Yes, I agree with your last point, and fiction can often convey these experiences more effectively or in a more powerful way than non-fiction, don’t you think?

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about this novel. Dementia seems to be something increasingly explored in recent fiction. It sounds like a great choice for a book group.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, it’s gone down very well with quite a few bloggers and people I follow on twitter. Dementia is quite a hot topic and certainly an increasing challenge for us to manage. It’s a good one for book groups all right…I can’t wait to hear what the other members of my group made of it!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Lindsay. I’m sure we’ll have a great discussion at my book group, and I’m looking forward to hearing how everyone else found the book. I thought my notes on Emma’s event might be of interest to others, so thank you for saying that. Glad to include a link to your review, you’re always welcome.

      Reply
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  6. Max Cairnduff

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I have a horror of dementia from childhood which makes this quite a difficult book for me. I have heard nothing but good things of it though, so should perhaps try it.

    It’s not a crime novel is it? She’s trying to solve something, but I suspect I’d be less interested if it were actually crime fiction.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I wouldn’t describe it as a crime novel, Max. It doesn’t have the pace or tone of crime fiction, but there are a number of flashbacks as Maud thinks back to the time of her sister’s disappearance. So there’s a bit of investigation into what might have happened to the sister, but it’s a case of Maud and her family looking for clues, trying to figure out what might have happened (as opposed to a police procedural).

      To be honest, while I enjoyed this book a lot it didn’t wow me, and it won’t make my end-of-year highlights. I think it’s a good debut, well written: good, but not great (although I’d say David preferred it more than I did). For me, the real strength of this book is its depiction of a character living with dementia – Maud’s inner thoughts and feelings, her physical behaviour. While the book contains touches of humour, some scenes are upsetting, and it does bring out the distress and frustration of feeling trapped by dementia.

      Based on your horror of dementia from childhood, I’m somewhat reluctant to recommend this one to you, Max. If I considered the book amazing, I’d say it might be worth the angst of giving it a go…but I didn’t love it. Does that help at all or leave you in even more of a quandary?

      One final thought, as I think we started discussing this book in the context of exciting new/young writers — have you come across Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd; Sidewalks)? I’ve just reviewed Sidewalks, a collection of her essays, and I’d say she’s very talented. I read Faces in the Crowd pre-blog and loved that one, too (Tony Malone reviewed it recently).

      Reply
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