Elizabeth is Missing is the first novel by Emma Healey.
The story is told by Maud, an elderly woman who has either dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Maud can’t remember much from the present day except that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She has been forgetting little things, such as where she left her cup of tea or what she wanted to buy when she went to the shops, although lately she is also forgetting things that affect her safety, including where she lives and if she left the gas on when she started to cook. Towards the end of the story, Maud’s memory is deteriorating more quickly and she is regularly forgetting the names of common items and who her children and grandchildren are.
The only thing Maud is sure of from the present is that her friend Elizabeth is missing from her home. Maud constantly asks her daughter Helen where Elizabeth is, but she cannot get a satisfactory answer, either from Helen, the local police, or from Elizabeth’s no-good son, Peter.
Maud’s sister Sukey also went missing while Maud was a teenager, almost seventy years ago. The mystery of what happened to Sukey appears to be linked to Elizabeth’s disappearance. Maud seems better able to remember things about Sukey’s long ago disappearance than what she can from the present day. Her failing memory makes this story infuriating to read, because you are constantly almost getting to the bottom of a mystery, or learning some information which might help, then being sidetracked when Maud thinks of something else or forgets her train of thought entirely. Maud’s thoughts are all over the place, and even though she writes herself notes to remember things, they are of little use to her (or the reader) to help to figure out the puzzles.
The author has done a good job of getting inside Maud’s head. I had a great aunt who lost her memory and as children, we thought it was great, because she forgot she had already given us lollies and would offer them to us again and again. Her family must have been driven to despair though. Maud’s forgetfulness made it possible that she would burn her house down, or that she would get lost and not be able to remember who she was and where she lived. Helen, Maud’s daughter, obviously has Maud’s best interests at heart, although things didn’t seem that way to Maud, who felt as if she were losing autonomy over her own life.
I was surprised to learn that the author was only 28 years old when she wrote Elizabeth is Missing. It isn’t a great novel, but it is good start, and Maud is a believable character, although her forgetfulness made it hard to know her character fully, or even other present-day characters’ motives, except for those who could be judged by their actions. My sympathies in this book were with Helen, who has a big job ahead of her looking after her mother.
My main quibble with the story was to do with Sukey’s disappearance and why nobody figured out what happened to her at the time. It was obvious to me from about half way through the book, as was a mystery about another character, a ‘mad woman’ who was frightening Maud and Sukey when they were young, but I think these mysteries were supposed to be big reveals at the end of the book. The story was slow in the beginning too, although the pace improved about half way through.
I will look out for future works by Emma Healey.