Can there be a more unreliable narrator than an 81-year old woman with dementia? Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is a brilliant debut.
Maud lives on her own, she has carers visiting, they leave prepared food for her and tell her not to use the cooker. But she does love toast. There is a rebelliousness about Maud which immediately made me connect with her. She reminded me of my mother, who suffered from dementia. I was impressed with the way Maud’s condition is portrayed, in convincing detail, slowly deteriorating as the story progresses. Maud writes herself notes, as memory prompts, and keeps them in her pockets and around the house. The note she re-reads most often is ‘Elizabeth is missing’. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend, and she is not at her house. The story has a cyclical motion as Maud finds the note, goes out to hunt for Elizabeth, and then is told by someone that Elisabeth is not missing, that she is fine. And then Maud finds the note again, and the cycle re-starts.
Interwoven with Maud’s search for Elizabeth, is a narrative strand set in 1946 when she lives with her parents and lodger Douglas. People are displaced as a population comes to terms with the end of the conflict, a poor economy, returning soldiers who are not the husbands they were when they went away to fight. Post-war rationing makes meals difficult, people grow vegetables, forage for fruit, make their own clothes. Maud’s older sister Sukey is good at dressmaking and she gives Maud items to wear. The sisters are close. And then Sukey disappears, no-one knows where she has gone, including her husband Frank.
I am a little unsure how a reader will react if they have no experience of dementia. Maud’s thought processes are, by the nature of her illness, repetitive. But her memories are key to understanding the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance. You, I, the reader, is the detective. It is up to us to sift through the clues, keeping them and discarding them.
In the background, throughout the novel, is the attitude of people towards dementia sufferers. The impatience, the lack of empathy, the unwillingness to understand someone obviously not in their full senses, and also the kindness, gentleness, the fondness, the helpfulness of strangers.
For example the police sergeant who repeatedly takes down the information when Maud reports Elizabeth as missing.
“‘Same as usual?’ he says, his voice sounding metallic through the speakers.
‘Usual?’ I say.
‘Elizabeth, is it?’ He nods, as if encouraging me to say a line in a play.
‘Elizabeth, yes,’ I say, amazed. Of course, that’s what I’ve come for. I’ve come for her.”
It is a nice touch that he appears at the end of the story, closing the circle.Click here for Emma Healey’s website.
Connect with Emma Healey on Facebook here.
To learn more about dementia, visit the website of the Alzheimer’s Association.
‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey [UK: Viking] Buy now
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ELIZABETH IS MISSING by @ECHealey http://wp.me/p5gEM4-11S #bookreview via @SandraDanby