Can there be anything more frightening than losing touch with who you are? “Elizabeth is Missing” is narrated by Maud, an elderly woman who sometimes forgets the names of things, what's happening around her and who people are. In the space of a single page where she only moves from one room to another she can have completely lost track of what was happening a few sentences before. When the symptoms of dementia become more acute she sometimes becomes dangerously lost and doesn't remember her own daughter Helen who helps assist her in her daily life alongside some other carers. Through Maud's eyes we see the world as disorientating, jumbled, frustrating and terrifying. Time becomes circuitous. Certain triggers pull her into the past. For instance, contact with a written letter or a craving for apples draws Maud back into memories of post-wartime Britain and her family life. Her sister Sukey disappeared and left indelible marks on the lives of her parents, Sukey’s husband and a lodger in the house. Maud’s great respect for her older sister led her as a teenager to emulate her in dress and spend intense periods of time with Sukey’s husband. Being haunted by her loss, Maud practices a curious blend of envy and mourning which flows through the span of her life to the present day. I admire the complexity of a line like this which shows the way Maud’s reasoning works: “I'm always frowning in my memory, so no wonder my brow has set that way.” Time flows back and forth so that the past intrudes upon Maud’s present in a way that could be disorientating but is carefully controlled by the author. I felt deep empathy for Maud’s struggle, but wasn’t lost myself with what was happening in the story.
In the present, Maud is consumed with worry for her friend Elizabeth who has also gone missing. This loss sticks in her consciousness and she obsessively tries to track down details of where Elizabeth might be. We’re aware that the people around her understand what’s happened to Elizabeth, but they’ve presumably become so weary of Maud’s enquiries they don’t bother to tell her the truth anymore because she instantly forgets it and insists Elizabeth is missing again. On a narrative level this makes a very clever mystery since as readers we feel the intense frustration of not knowing what happened to Elizabeth alongside Maud, but we’re trapped in her perspective. Maud has a jumble of paper scraps she keeps in her pockets which she uses to help aid in her search, but more often than not she finds them even more confusing. This is a device which is similarly employed in the movie ‘Momento’ with a character who has short-term memory loss so tries to write things down as clues to lead him in the right direction. But in this novel the act feels much more human and tragic as the disease Maud suffers from effects so many elderly people.
What really grounded me in Maud’s perspective was the way the physical world affected her. Healey has a way of describing Maud’s sensory experience so that what is tangibly real in the present like a handful of rich earthy soil in the palm of her hand becomes everything because that is all Maud can be certain of in that moment. It’s both emotionally touching and makes the fictional world so much more vividly real in the reader’s mind. Gradually as the mysterious story of Maud, Sukey and Elizabeth unfolds small things like a tin of peaches or a cracked compact mirror take on an accumulating significance that immerses us fully in Maud’s worldview. In time, Maud’s actions which appear erratic and pointless to the people around her become deeply meaningful to the reader. We’re also aware of the off-handed cruelty that can be inflicted on someone vulnerable who is suffering from the disease such as a sadistic care-worker who tries to verbally terrify Maud or a mocking neighbor. Other times Maud is treated with extreme sensitivity and kindness by others, especially her daughter and granddaughter. However, most people take for granted that Maud must not be capable of comprehending what other people are thinking. But Maud is highly sensitive to people’s reactions to her. She’s aware that people are amused or frustrated by her confusion through subtle reactions and facial expressions, but she’s powerless to prevent herself from breaking through the black walls of forgetfulness surrounding her. Despite all this sounding very grim, Emma Healey maintains a lightness in her narrative that made my intimate acquaintance with Maud strangely comforting. This book is a bridge to another generation as well as to someone who is sadly trapped in a cloud of confusion. There is a tenderness for the central character here so real it made me wish I could hold Maud’s hand and take her to the shop for more tinned peaches.
Listen to an excellent interview with Healey about this novel from You Wrote the Book!: