Tag Archives: Emma Healey

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.

An Evening with Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.