All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

on October 21, 2014

Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth Is Missing
Emma Healey
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 275p
Read from my local library

Maud is 82 and she’s becoming more and more forgetful. She makes herself a cup of tea, forgets to drink it and then makes more. She goes to the shops, can’t remember why she’s there and buys things she doesn’t need until they’re piling up in the pantry. She forgets that she’s already eaten and makes herself some more toast. She forgets that really, she shouldn’t be cooking and thinks that boiling an egg will be ok. It’s just an egg.

One thing Maud does know is that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. She hasn’t heard from her and the note in her pocket reminds her. Elizabeth is missing. Maud is sure that Elizabeth’s son Peter has done something, but no one is listening to her. And it’s pretty hard to solve the mystery of where Elizabeth is when you keep forgetting what you’ve already learned.

Maud’s confusion means she sometimes mixes up the events of now with the events of the past and the disappearance of Elizabeth isn’t the only mystery Maud needs to get to the bottom of. Seventy years ago her sister disappeared and locked away somewhere in Maud’s mind is the answer, if only she can find a way to let it out.

Elizabeth Is Missing is Emma Healey’s first novel and I would imagine that she’s chosen a very difficult character as her narrator. Maud is in her 80s and in the early stages of dementia/Alzheimer’s. At the beginning of the book she’s still living independently in her own home but it’s pretty obvious to the reader that this will not be able to continue much longer. Maud constantly forgets that she’s done things like turn the gas on to boil an egg. She has a carer who comes in the mornings and makes Maud her lunch, which Maud isn’t supposed to eat until lunch time but despite the note left on the food, Maud almost always eats it immediately. She has been told not to go to the shops but she keeps going, buying things she doesn’t need, forgetting the things that she does need.

Fortunately for me, I’ve never had any experience with someone who has Alzheimer’s so I can’t judge from personal experience how accurate Maud seems, only judge by what I’ve heard and it seems as though Healey has done an absolutely brilliant job capturing someone who is on the brink of being unable to live independently. Maud has moments of clear lucidity, more in the beginning of the book but as you get deeper into the story, the present and the past begin to blur more and more often in her mind and she has trouble recognising people in her life, even her daughter Helen. There is quite an amusing moment, after she moves in with Helen, where she tells Helen that the new girl Helen has hired doesn’t do any cleaning and leaves clothes all over the floor. Maud is actually talking about her own granddaughter Katy, who she has moments of not recognising and even though Helen can clearly see this is an advancement of her symptoms, she’s able to find the funny side in Maud clearly seeing that Katy doesn’t contribute.

Along with the mystery of where Maud’s friend Elizabeth is, a second mystery, that of the disappearance of Maud’s sister Sukey. Sukey was older than Maud, glamorous and someone Maud clearly looked up to. She was married to a mysterious man named Frank who always seemed to be doing favours for people and was always able to get them extra rations during the time of war. Sukey disappeared without a trace and it affected not only Maud but also the structure of her whole family. Her parents never quite dealt with the disappearance of Sukey and Maud was forced to seek out either her husband Frank, who people suspected of harming her, or their lodger Douglas who seemed to have a complicated relationship with Sukey, if she ever wanted to be able to talk about her.

This book’s strength, which is the rambling, confused narrative of Maud is also occasionally its weakness for me, because there’s so many things that are repeated, so many fragments that don’t come together to make sense in a meaningful way. This is of course intended, but it does occasionally make for frustrating reason as we go through for the twentieth time that yes, Elizabeth is missing according to Maud and no one is listening to her. I don’t know if they are telling Maud where Elizabeth is sometimes and she’s just forgetting it or if they’re attempting to protect her but it does occasionally come off as if they are just ignoring her or even worse, humouring her. The fact that she remembers that Elizabeth isn’t around is interesting, it appears to be the one thing that sticks repetitively in her mind. I’m not sure if it’s because it reminds her of Sukey disappearing, which has obviously weighed so heavily on her for her whole life and Elizabeth seems to also be the one person that Maud spends time with where neither of them are doing it out of duty. I know for Helen, it must be both frustrating and also depressing seeing her mother descend more and more into confusion and Helen sighs a lot and becomes short with Maud but at the same time, most if not all of her care, falls to her. Helen has a brother, Maud’s son who lives abroad and so basically the entire workload falls to Helen and it wouldn’t be easy. Maud is also an entirely unreliable narrator as she forgets so much and confuses incidents between the past and the present.

I enjoyed this a lot – I think it’s a very difficult story executed very well and I would be interested in anything else that Emma Healey writes in the future.


Book #213 of 2014


2 responses to “Review: Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

  1. Kate W says:

    I’ve had this one in the TBR stack for a few months but have been putting it off because I know it will be confronting – I have a family member in early stages of dementia and I suspect a lot of this book will ring very true.

  2. Deborah says:

    I loved this novel – gave it a rare 5 stars! As I said in my review, my dad had dementia and being in Maud’s mind gave me some comfort and reassurance.


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