Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

This is the third of my choices from the UK in the series featuring older women in fiction around the world. It is more recent than the previous selections, being published in 2014 and immediately it was winning prizes and topping charts.

Maud is a very sympathetic figure, and presented with a great deal of respect. An ambitious aspect of the novel is that Maud, although increasingly suffering from dementia, is the narrator. I recently heard someone say on the radio that readers don’t want novels about older people with dementia. The success of this novel brings that statement into question.

20 E is missing cover

Elizabeth is Missing

The narrator of Elizabeth is Missing  is Maud. She is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. The title suggests that the mystery to be solved is the disappearance of Maud’s friend Elizabeth. But it becomes apparent that she is still bothered by the unanswered question of what happened to her sister many years before. Was she murdered by Frank, her spiv husband? Or did she disappear to escape some problem? And why has half of her compact case turned up in Elizabeth’s garden after all these years?

The early part of the novel is concerned to establish Maud’s limitations. I found that it took some time to move further into the story and for the twin problems of the two missing women to emerge. In some ways this reconstructs Maud’s understanding of events, fragmentary, disconnected, illogical, always just out of sight. The first person narrative carries this well.

The Older Woman

At the start of the novel Maud lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer, Carla.

She [Carla] picks up the carers’ folder, nodding at me, keeping eye contact until I nod back. I feel like I’m at school. There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I’ve lost the thread of it now. Once upon a time, is that how it started? Once upon a time, in a deep, dark forest, there lived an old, old woman named Maud. I can’t think what the next bit should be. Something about waiting for her daughter to come and visit, perhaps. It’s a shame I don’t live in a nice little cottage in a dark forest, I could just fancy that. And my granddaughter might bring me food in a basket. (3-4)

Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She moves to live with her daughter Helen. Maud uses the strategy of writing herself notes to cope with her growing confusing. However, the notes accumulate and she is unable to make much sense of them.

The thing is to be systematic, try to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. But I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered. I’ve phoned and there’s no answer. I haven’t seen her. I think. She hasn’t been here and I haven’t been there. What next? I suppose I should go to the house. Search for clues. And whatever I find I will write it down. I must put pens in my handbag now. The thing is to be systematic. I’ve written that down too.  (22)

The dominant thought in Maud’s head is her friend Elizabeth. She repeatedly tells her daughter, ‘Elizabeth is missing’.

We also come to see Maud as a young girl, through her memories (more reliable) and of the tragedy in her teenage years when her sister Sukey disappeared. This second disappearance drives the novel’s narrative.

What we find

We get a good look at the importance of memory in managing everyday life and in learning, how change affects people, and of the experience of dementia. It also reveals the generosity of Helen, and of her daughter Kate who both treat Maud with respect. Some of the muddles are amusing, and reveal that dealing with Maud can be frustrating while other responses are abusive, impatient and abrupt.

Despite losing her memory and becoming increasingly confused, Maud is not a figure of pity. Rather we admire her drive to get to the bottom of both mysteries and to deal with her difficulties with determination and good spirit. It is in the way she behaves that she claims the respect that is due, and the dignity of her age.

Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

Posted by Caroline Lodge of  Bookword

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