Book review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Monday, August 18, 2014 Permalink

I finished Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing a week ago and have struggled with its review ever since. Not because I wondered how to politely ‘diss’ the book; but because I loved it so much I want this review to do it justice.

Maud Horsham is 82 years of age and although she knows there’s something she has to remember about Elizabeth, she can only remember that her friend is missing. Seemingly obsessed with Elizabeth’s disappearance Maud tries to raise her concerns with her family and even the police, but no one takes her seriously, leaving her no option but to uncover the truth for herself.

The story unfolds in two time periods. As the elderly Maud worries about her missing friend, she is reminded of the disappearance of her older sister almost 70 years before. Understandably, the two become intertwined in Maud’s confused mind as she tries to solve a puzzle she can’t quite piece together.

It’s a cliché but long-suffering is the perfect description of Maud’s daughter Helen whose frustration is often palpable. I could completely relate to her character as did my mother (who read the book straight after I finished). There’s an irritating or exasperating impotence which comes from hearing the same questions again and again; followed by guilt for being so short-tempered when you know it’s not your loved one’s fault.

Maud has dementia. Like my own father Maud’s long term memory is flagging but her ability to retain thoughts and memories in the short and medium term has completely disappeared.

“I’m not sure quite sure what I’m agreeing to, but I like the feeling of falling into blackness, the end of anxiously trying to remember.”

cover36436-mediumI was able to chuckle at scenes in which Maud wasn’t sure if she’d eaten and her certainty that she was not responsible for things appearing or missing.

My dad would often walk into the kitchen and look at the clock. “It’s time for lunch,” he’d say and my mother would have to tell him they’d already eaten. He also started telling the occasional fib and had no idea he was lying. And then there were the notes, signs and reminders scattered about the house!

Healey absolutely nails Maud’s voice as she struggles to find the words she needs.

“I’m sitting in a sitting thing for sitting on facing a computer…”

I’ve mentioned before, voice is all-important to me. My favourite books are those in which I fall in love with the voice of the lead character (Lost and Found and Dear Daughter are two recent favourites).

We spend the entire novel in Maud’s head and she is beautifully written. Charismatic, frustrating, sympathetic and funny.

One of my favourite blog posts is one I wrote called The Rain – about my father and his dementia. When he first started having problems with his memory I read a few books on the subject. And yes, even some non-fiction (I hate non-fiction). But I’ve always wondered what it was like for him. I’ve wondered how much he knew about what was happening to him.

I like to think Healey’s take on the mind of someone with dementia is spot-on and I know she’s had first-hand experience with the disease.

Maud knew she was forgetting ‘something’ or realised she couldn’t quite grasp an idea and it occasionally frustrated her but (thankfully) it didn’t depress her and it didn’t cause her a lot of anxiety. She moved on quickly.

Maud was aware of her ailing mind, but not thwarted by it – reassuring for the family of someone who similarly struggled.

Although familiar and comforting to those who’ve dealt with dementia, Elizabeth is Missing is beautifully written and will have broad appeal. (I could not have loved this book more!)

It’s a subject matter which could be depressing or heavy, but there’s a compassionate lightness which allows us to laugh at Maud and her antics. And finally there’s an element of mystery and intrigue as Maud picks through her murky memories.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was released on 5 June 2014 via Penguin Books UK (Viking).

I received a copy from the publisher for review purposes.