Maud gets muddled about all sorts of things these days, but she is sure of one thing: Elizabeth is missing. In her obsession to find out what has happened to her friend, Maud's quest takes her back to a long-forgotten mystery from her past.
Elizabeth Is Missing hit close to home, making me think of my own grandmother, who is 92, and growing increasingly forgetful and confused. And like Maud, she has very fixed ideas that no one else can quite work out where they came from. But they make perfect sense to her. It did not help matters that Maud's daughter in Elizabeth is Missing was named Helen - my mother's name - and her granddaughter Katy (though they were very different people from my mum and me.)
It was a courageous choice on Emma Healey's behalf to write this book entirely from the point of view of an elderly lady with some form of dementia. Written in the first person, the prose is in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, a mixture of past and present as Maud gets her thoughts confused, with gaps between scenes, and the search for elusive words (which may turn up in the next paragraph as if they were never missing.) Each sentence is in the present, although we can observe where it contradicts the thought that Maud had just a couple of lines back. We get to experience Maud's frustration and fogginess while seeing what she forgets, as she forgets it. This fictional view inside a fading mind encourages empathy, patience and understanding. Maud's world is not the same as the one she physically inhabits, but is a world of the mind, of past and present perceived as fluid and changing.
Maud's memories are bound up in repeated behaviour and in objects, which take her back to a time in her past, in the 1940s, when her sister Sukey disappeared. Her recollection of seventy years ago is far more lucid than her short-term memory, which just will not retain information. She will latch onto small details, ask strange, apparently meaningless questions, such as where would be the best place to plant marrows? As well as the memories of her family, their lodger and her missing sister's lodger, a "mad" woman recurs in her flashbacks, making scenes, but for the most part seemingly unrelated to everything else Maud remembers. As well as perhaps being a parallel to her elderly self, one wonders if the "mad" woman's strange behaviour will be the key to unlocking the mystery. And ultimately the clues were in plain sight all along, if only Maud (and the reader) could figure out what they meant.
Elizabeth is Missing was an excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut.