Book review: ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey

Emma Healey

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Title: Elizabeth is Missing

Author: Emma Healey

Publisher: Viking, Penguin

Publication date: 5th June 2014 (advanced copy)

Paperback: 275 pages

Why did I chose to read this book? I was sent a bumper pack of advanced proofs from Penguin and this one caught my eye due to the unassuming front cover and the mysteriously questioning title

Where to read this book? In a comfortable chair at home safe and sound

Refreshments: Cups of tea and lots of toast with lashings of proper butter – sorry to come over all Malory Towers but that’s what you need to eat and drink whilst reading

Review:

‘The thing is to be systematic, try to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. But I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered.’ Maud cannot remember a lot of things it’s only thanks to her abundance of notes that she knows one thing for sure and that’s that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answers to an unsolved mystery one everyone else has forgotten about.

This story is a beautiful and sad reflection on the aging process and society’s reaction to the elderly. Septuagenarian, Maud is suffering from dementia the progress of which we follow through the pages of her story. The story is written in the first person from Maud’s point of view and it is interesting to get an insight into her thought processes and frustrations at not being able to remember. The detailed passages are at once heartwarming, especially when confronted with Maud’s defiance to boil an egg and eat bread whenever she wants, to infuriating. I found myself being unutterably angry when reading about the behaviors Maud encounters from people in her village, in particular those of her old colleagues at the Oxfam shop and the policeman openly laughing in her face over the subject of Elizabeth. After watching my own grandmother slowly become a prisoner of dementia the intolerance and lack of understanding reflected in the ‘youth of today’ between these pages stuck a personal nerve.

The issue of dementia is reflected in the dual narrative, split between Maud’s childhood and the disappearance of her sister and her present day life. As the book progresses the passages describing her childhood become longer in comparison to the present as Maud’s mind gets more entrenched in the past. This is a well-known effect of dementia that a person can remember clearly their past but not the people in their present, or how to carry out everyday tasks. As well as being a useful tool to explain Maud’s state of mind it also creates a full and effortlessly interwoven picture of her life.

The relationship that strikes the strongest emotional chord is that with her daughter Helen. It’s upsetting to bear witness to Maud’s dissent into the illness to the extent that she starts to lashes out at Helen due to her frustration only to immediately forget and see her daughter with a bruise or crying and reach out to comfort her. The full time job of looking after Maud is brutal in it’s honesty and it’s heartwarming to read Helen’s resilience and also her resistance to putting her mother into a home.

This is at once a beautiful and disturbing story of one woman’s battle with growing old and the memories of her childhood. I recommend reading this to everyone if only to serve as a lesson to be more tolerant to those who are starting to become slightly more forgetful.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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