The central idea of Emma Healey’s debut novel is eccentric, very English and ingenious. Elizabeth is Missing is a detective story narrated by an elderly lady with dementia.
At least we presume she has some kind of dementia. Maud describes herself as “forgetful”. She sometimes recognises her daughter, Helen, and sometimes doesn’t. She gets into all kinds of muddles, despite the little notes she leaves herself to remember the important things. She still wanders off. She still goes to a church but can’t remember her own name when somebody asks it. To have such an unreliable narrator as the protagonist in a whodunit is charming, compassionate and original.
Over the course of the novel Maud’s memory deteriorates in a way that many will recognise. Maud has a friend, Elizabeth, of a similar age. Elizabeth is missing. Maud is convinced of that. She goes to Elizabeth’s house and Elizabeth is no longer there. She keeps telling people Elizabeth is missing – Helen, the police, Elizabeth’s son – but no one takes her seriously. Maud is determined to find her.
Novel about dementia
At one level this is a story of someone with dementia who has become fixated on something and keeps repeating it over and over again. “Elizabeth is missing.” Towards the end of the novel it becomes apparent that Elizabeth is in hospital and Maud has been told many times where she is and even taken to visit. We feel for Maud who can’t remember this and therefore can’t be assuaged in her anxiety. We feel for Helen in her attempt to stay patient and loving.
But this is not the only tale being told. Maud’s short term memory is such that if she has a cup of tea she can’t remember to drink it. Her long term memory, however, is lucid.
Novel about missing sister
Seventy years ago, her older sister, Sukey, who was married to Frank and lived nearby went missing. Nobody knew what happened to her. Her body was never found. Naturally, this was a traumatic experience for the young Maud and events in the old Maud’s life bring back the memories of what happened when the family heard Sukey had gone and set about trying to find her.
Old Maud’s distress that Elizabeth is missing echoes young Maud’s distress that Sukey is missing. A bottle of Macallan whisky by the kerb of the road in the present reminds Maud of a bottle of Macallan whisky being drunk by Frank, all those year ago.
Neat story telling
And so it is that the story of what happened seventy years ago is woven into the tale of what is happening in the present. The reader can guess that the cause of Elizabeth’s disappearance is entirely innocent even if we are not told, until the end, where she is. The cause of Sukey’s disappearance is another matter. Was she kidnapped? Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? And if so, who did it? Was it the dodgy and sometimes violent Frank? Was it Douglas the lodger who evidently knows far more than he is letting on? Was it the terrifying mad woman who hangs about in hedges?
To tell the two tales in this way is a neat literary device, partly because it’s a credible depiction of the mind of someone with dementia – clear about the past and confused by the here and now – but also because it provides some page-turning suspense in the midst of the muddlesome present.
Boring and depressing
I’ll be honest – I found the start of the novel and subsequent narrations by the old Maud hard to read. I found them boring and depressing. I found them boring, for the same reason that being with someone with dementia can be boring if you aren’t prepared to enter into a different way of being to be alongside that person. And while I might be prepared to do that for someone I love, it might not be what I would choose to do for my leisure. It can be depressing too, raising all those difficult feelings. What happened to the person she once was? Why can’t I console her? What if this happens to me?
The clever thing about placing the Sukey-is-missing-tale within the Elizabeth-is-missing-story is that it offers some respite from these feelings that many of us prefer to avoid. Around the middle of the novel, the Sukey story becomes a gripping whodunit that provides enough forward-momentum to more than off-set the lack of action in Maud’s present reality.
At the end the two stories dovetail and the loose ends are tidied up. Details that appear first as mere fixations are woven into the grand denouement as their significance is explained. The novel is very well crafted, which explains why Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa First Novel Award 2014, why the TV rights have been sold and why it was the subject of a bidding war between nine publishers.
As well as the style of narration, I would applaud Emma Healey for the sympathy with which she depicts all her characters. By weaving the story of young Maud within the mind of old Maud, the reader is reminded of the rich, if confusing, world that someone with dementia might be living in. At the end of the novel, Maud, Helen, the long-suffering and sometimes irritable daughter, and even the person we suspect is responsible for Sukey’s disappearance, are all held in loving compassion.
The novel serves to remind us that “Maud” might well wander into our church. We will meet people with dementia at the corner shop, at the bus stop or in the public library if we haven’t already. I hope that through reading Elizabeth is Missing, we might imagine how to honour that person’s reality, even if that reality is different from our own.
- This review first appeared in Third Way magazine