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The blurb to Elizabeth is Missing hints at two mysteries to be solved - but by the end I had third to ponder: how had Emma Healey managed to draw together two stories 70 years apart, whilst elegantly colouring in with different genres? And all led by a protagonist suffering from dementia?
Enjoying a book you’re pretty sure you’re going to like is all well and good but… there is a special kind of thrill when your wariness on page 1 has been gently painted over with vivid swirls of “oh my this is great” by the final page.
THE SET UP
Elizabeth is Missing had me intrigued with the set-up of Maud, an elderly lady suffering from dementia who is convinced something has happened to her friend Elizabeth. But I also worried it might be hard work, a worthy book that my focus wouldn’t cope with and perhaps one I should acknowledge as good, rather than one I would find enjoyable.
To begin with, everything unfolds quite quickly into what seems like a neat little mystery with a twist; Maud is desperate to find her missing friend Elizabeth - despite her memory being impaired by dementia. But then with chapter change or title as a warning, we’re swept into the past and another mystery - someone else goes missing - in the rubble of the second world war, Maud’s sister Sukey disappears. Are they related? Does Maud know what has happened to each woman and has just forgotten?
The first person narrative pinches you into Maud’s present tense thoughts and actions and the permanence of her now is way more unsettling than I was expecting. When the comfort blanket of actions following a chronological sequence is taken away we’re left with the cold reality of Maud’s mind quantum leaping into each moment.
SYMPATHY AND FRUSTRATION
Our sympathy is clearly with Maud, we experience her disorientation, we feel the shame and heartbreak of an early accident that shows how the loss of her mind also affects her body. The world is not kind or accommodating to an elderly lady living on her own who is trying to cope with dementia. Early on it is established how isolated she is without her husband, with her children taking contrasting approaches towards her and her friends gone for different reasons. She is berated for eating too much toast and is clearly struggling to keep a house in order and remember what to buy - and not to buy - at the local shop.
But we also see how exasperating Maud’s condition can be to those who care for her, and the toll placed on her daughter in particular. And as her dementia is worsening, we are all too aware that time may be running out for Maud to discover what has happened to Elizabeth and to resolve the mystery of her sister. All this whilst we genuinely worry about her own safety.
Being inside Maud’s mind is a little like being cast adrift at sea in a boat you’re not sure how to steer and with the navigation down all whilst a storm gathers momentum. You’re never quite on an even keel to feel like you’re in control and as details slide from surfaces and are scattered on the floor, you’re then hit with a wave of memories that totally consume you. But luckily, the author is skilled enough to never let us capsize completely. It’s a journey that I could well understand some readers not having the stomach for.
I have to admit, at one point I had to put the book down and go for a walk and do something else as it was just too frustrating. Maud writes post-it notes to herself as reminders. Sometimes these are numbers or instructions, sometimes they don’t even make sense, especially as she can’t remember when or why she wrote them. And this was my big frustration - why not write the time and date with each note? Why didn’t some give her notes each day with that day’s date on? Look, I know it wouldn’t have worked but this is the extent to which I was drawn in by this character and the mystery that Emma Healey was taunting me with.
IS THIS A THRILLER?
Back in the 1940s the story of Maud’s sister unfolds in a more familiar manner and is described with vivid period detail of life on rations and the struggle to survive and move on. Although we are on a surer footing with the how the story is told, we are still presented with a Maud who seems very much on her own, and a Maud who is surrounded by characters she might not be able to trust. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much of an unreliable narrator Maud was in all of this and that just added to the general unease. As young Maud searches for clues about her sister, characters reveal themselves as different flavours of suspicious.
Maud’s dad? Suspicious and distant.
Sukey’s husband? Suspicious and dangerous.
The lodger? Suspicious and creepy.
Wait, when did this turn into a sort of crime thriller? Wasn’t this a sad story about an old lady with dementia? Yes. And no. Look, just allow yourself to get drawn in and essentially you’re getting several genre stories for the price of one here. There’s definite elements of a psychological drama threaded through the main two mysteries, and then there’s the addition of the flashbacks, which almost gives it a cold case flavour. At times I was curling myself into my chair with tension as the child Maud takes bigger risks in the search for her sister in the past and older Maud mirrors her desperate search in the present for Elizabeth.
There is a sequence in a department store that used all the trademarks of a horror, with quick reveals and short sentences to put me through the ringer as if a character were fleeing a monster rather than simply trying to find the exit.
In fact, trying to escape is one of the recurring themes of the novel along with memories and the past being buried, but perhaps always waiting to be dug up. If you dig into this superb novel, you will be rewarded with a bountiful harvest.
Biscuit rating: Garibaldi and Border Classic Selection.
Elizabeth is Missing is a gorgeous beast of a story that spills treats from each and every page.
I have to give this a double biscuit award of a Garibaldi AND a Border Classic selection as it provided something different to chew on whilst also giving me a delicious quality and variety to savour.