It is difficult to believe that ‘Elizabeth is Missing‘ is Emma Healey‘s first book. I can quite imagine finishing it in one sitting and it is by far the best thing I have read this year (!).
Maud writes herself a lot of notes. Sometimes there are so many of them that they fall out of her pockets and often she can’t make sense of them later. She has to set down the words in order to remember things; even the names of familiar objects escape her sometimes, as do the names of her family and carers. Maud has to keep reminding herself to find Elizabeth, because she knows her friend is missing. She’s been round to her house and it’s empty, so she knows Elizabeth isn’t there.
From Maud’s increasingly confused standpoint, the stories of her past and present lives are unfurled. Whilst she cannot remember what a bath is called, or how to boil an egg, she is able to recall the circumstances of when someone else went missing; her sister, Sukey, in 1946. Maud’s short-term memory is failing her, but her ability to recall events from all those years ago remains largely undiminished. Her memories are triggered not only by things she can see, but also by touch, smell, sound and taste. This novel explores the nature of memory, what we hold on to and what slips away. It is crafted with skill and painstaking precision, as Maud’s recollections of the past and her life in the present are revealed and begin to converge.
For a young woman, this author is remarkably perceptive about how dementia affects the mind and how elderly people such as Maud are treated by others. Whilst most of the characters in the novel are tolerant of Maud’s repeated questions, bizarre ramblings and odd behaviour, others are dismissive and impatient. With momentary flashes of insight. Maud realises that people are sighing, or rolling their eyes and she knows she has caused these reactions, but is at a complete loss to understand why. Whilst her own family are kindly, even her daughter (Helen) finds herself exasperated and frustrated with her mother’s behaviour.
This book seems totally original: I know that some smartarse will probably be along later to tell me about a similar novella (now out of print) written in Spanish and translated into Mandarin by an obscure Oxford Don in 1937, but I read a lot and I have not come across a narrator with a voice as original as Maud’s for a long time. Elizabeth may well be missing, but I assure you, discovering what has happened to her is a revelation in many ways.