I remember reading a review and synopsis of this book in a newspaper and knowing immediately that I wanted to read it. Elizabeth is Missing is told from the perspective of 82 year old Maud who has dementia or Alzheimer’s (neither are explicitly stated in the book though). Maud is certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing, but no one will take her claims seriously. She is regularly taken back to the past in her memory, recalling the time when she was a young girl and her older sister Sukey went missing. Everyone seems to have forgotten about this seventy year old mystery – except Maud.
While it was the aspect of dementia which initially drew me to the book, before reading I was a little concerned that this topic would be purely used as a plot device or a tool to retain the mystery of the two disappearances. But, in some ways, dementia and the theme of memory are the most important aspects of the book, with the disappearances feeling almost secondary. I feel that Elizabeth is Missing gives an honest, truthful, and respectful portrayal of dementia. It feels very real – as if Healey has had personal experience or done a lot of research – and she skilfully simulates Maud’s experience for the reader, whilst staying respectful to Maud and others who suffer from this cruel disease. Maud’s perspective can be disorientating and confusing; we feel her anger and despair when she struggles to remember something. Elsewhere, there are beautiful phrases which perfectly capture the feeling of Maud being unable to express herself or remember something and articulate it before it’s gone. While I loved these descriptions, the more I think about it, the more I wonder about their place in the book – there’s a discord between what Maud is doing (struggling to articulate) and what she is saying in the novel (a beautiful, articulate description of being unable to say what she means). Nevertheless, I enjoyed these descriptions – Healey is clearly a skilled writer.
At times, I did feel as if dementia was used to the writer’s advantage. For example, Maud has been told something, and so the reader isn’t given that piece of information. On the one hand this feels truthful – the book is written from Maud’s perspective so if she doesn’t know something, neither do we – but on the other hand, it does slightly feel as if the dementia has been used as a means to hide the truth from the reader until the last possible moment.
In terms of the theme of memory, when reading Elizabeth is Missing I was, at times, reminded of The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane which also explores memory or dementia (interestingly, it isn’t actually stated in this novel either). In The Night Guest Ruth’s memory loss is introduced gradually, so the reader begins to doubt what they believed at first which can leave you unsettled. In Elizabeth is Missing Maud’s memory loss is apparent from the outset and we see it deteriorating throughout. Because of this, we can sadly doubt Maud from the beginning which adds an interesting element to the novel as we’re not sure what to believe.
The two disappearances give the book its plot, and the parallel stories – Maud in the present believing her friend Elizabeth is missing, and Maud as a young girl when her sister disappeared – work well together. As I said earlier I did feel as if these mysteries were secondary in the book and, while they certainly kept my interest and I wanted to know how events unfolded, it was the theme of memory which most interested me.
The ending is a satisfying one, if a little convenient, but overall Elizabeth is Missing is a sad, touching, and insightful story. The subject of dementia made it difficult for me to read at times, yet it was so compelling that I had to read on. It’s an accomplished and well-crafted debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading what Healey writes next.
Have you read Elizabeth is Missing? What did you think?