Emma Healey’s book won the Costa Book Award in 2014 for a debut novel: Elizabeth is missing (London: Viking, 2014) richly deserved the prize. The author served a hard-working apprenticeship including taking a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the renowned University of East Anglia, during which she began her work on this moving story.
Authors can set themselves interesting challenges. Healey chose to write this story from the viewpoint and within the confused mind of Maud who is slowly slipping into the penumbra of dementia. Maud’s recollection of past events is often sharper and less confused than her short term memory. She seeks to overcome her problem by writing notes to herself but too often she cannot make much sense of these notes herself. The one thing she is completely certain of is that ‘Elizabeth is missing.’ Elizabeth is her friend and contemporary who bonded with Maud as the pair of them worked as volunteers in the Oxfam shop. When she goes to report her friend’s disappearance to the police we learn that this is far from the first time she has done so but she cannot recall the earlier times. When she goes out shopping, she forgets what she needs and cannot find her note so, once more, she buys tinned peaches to add to her store cupboard full of them.
The author’s challenge is to make the narrative of an eighty-year-old dementia sufferer both credible in its confusion yet accessible to the reader, whose role is to note and accept the writer’s approach. Healey does this with great skill so that we seldom notice how well Maud is telling her story. The mask slips only once or twice when Maud recalls the ‘mad woman’ being run over and killed on the road, her foraged leaves and plants scattered around her ‘like an old Ophelia who’d mistaken the road for a river.’ Even so, it is a beautiful simile and I could be accused of nit-picking: forgive me Emma.
Emma Healey was motivated to research and write her novel by her two grandmothers, both of whom suffered from Alzheimer’s. Anyone who has an ounce of empathy will be moved by the way Maud’s narrative and the events of the story become progressively more confused in each succeeding chapter. Those with first-hand experience of the illness will find so many echoes of actuality.
While Maud worries increasingly about Elizabeth, the story of her sister Sukie who disappeared with little or no trace seventy years before is intertwined, and clues and red herrings are interspersed cleverly. To find out if the two parallel stories finally converge, you will need to read the book as, according to my strict rules, the outcomes cannot be revealed. However, this beautiful book can be enthusiastically recommended to everyone.