Review - ELIZABETH IS MISSING, Emma Healey

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Reading a lot of crime fiction can sometimes get a little groundhog day"ish". Not so when a book like ELIZABETH IS MISSING comes along. Not only is the styling of this mystery very unusual, the central character is outstanding and different.

Maud is an eighty-two-year old independent woman, living in her own home, slowly losing her memory. Devastatingly she sometimes knows she's losing touch with reality, she certainly knows enough to recognise that the notes that are liberally dotted throughout her home, in her pockets and her bag are an important aide-memoire. Yet the note that appears most frequently is "Elizabeth is Missing". Despite being constantly assured that nothing is wrong, Maud remains convinced her best friend Elizabeth has gone missing. Her home is deserted, Elizabeth's son cannot to be trusted, and despite reporting the disappearance to the police nobody seems to be doing anything. It's up to Maud who even puts a missing person's advertisement in the paper.

Maud's obsessed with Elizabeth's fate, as she is with marrows and where to plant them. Her gardener daughter, and main carer Helen is constantly called upon for advice on growing marrows. There's something about marrows and Elizabeth - something more than just the way that they got to know each other.

As seems to be the way with dementia, much of Maud's childhood is clearer in her memory than current day events, and the narrative of ELIZABETH IS MISSING uses this aspect to chilling effect. There are snippets of the past constantly being woven into the present, and there's something particularly prescient about much of this interweaving. Especially as it becomes clear that the past disappearance of Maud's sister is firmly in her mind, that something has triggered this particular memory.

ELIZABETH IS MISSING is told from Maud's viewpoint, in present tense, which gives the reader an insight into the fractured way that Maud's mind is now working. Her perception and understanding is shattered or adjusted as is the reader's. Frequently the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of knowing the recent past, whereas Maud doesn't. There's also spatterings of humour in this viewpoint, Maud is defiant enough to ignore some notes (particularly about her shopping habits) and yet terrifyingly able to ignore reasonable notes to not cook (and leave the gas on endangering life).

There are so many strengths to this book. The characterisation of Maud is so real, so uplifting at points, and so distressing at others. The reader wants to shout warnings, cheer defiance, patiently explain the unremembered and mostly, help Maud live her life. At the same time you can't help but feel for her daughter Helen, and grand-daughter Katy. The frustration of caring for a much loved relative who can't remember who you are half the time and constantly seems to ignore the important things makes you ache for them. Then there's the acknowledgement that independence is going, and changes in living circumstances are going to trigger more defiance, more rage against the machine, and more erratic behaviour.

Woven into this family tale is an underlying potential for crime. The present in the disappearance of Elizabeth, the past with Maud's sister Sukey. The interplay between these elements of ELIZABETH IS MISSING provide a narrative drive. Maud is slowly losing everything, and yet there's something that's driving her forward, that must be resolved, answers that have to be sought out.

There is just so very much to admire about ELIZABETH IS MISSING. A realistic, loving and extremely sympathetic portrayal of all of the main characters in the present - Maud, Helen and Katy. A clear view back to Maud's parents, Sukey, her husband and the lodger in their home. Beautifully descriptive about place and the things that Maud observes, along with a good, strong plot delivered in a style that fits 100% with Maud and her situation. There's tension here, but the pace is slow, cautious and utterly believable. There are beautiful touches of humour and sadness, clarity and muddle, past and present. A most unexpected novel, wonderfully original, clever, compassionate and revealing, ELIZABETH IS MISSING was an absolute privilege to read.

Year of Publication

Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth's mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.

This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud's rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II.

As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey's disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth?

Review Review - ELIZABETH IS MISSING, Emma Healey
Karen Chisholm
Tuesday, January 13, 2015

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