Do you like an unreliable narrator? Well then, Emma Healey has one for you – Maud, an 82-year-old rapidly sliding into dementia. Maud often isn’t sure where she is or even what era she’s in – how, then, in spite of her unreliable memory, is her voice so true? Elizabeth is Missing has been called a crime novel and a thriller, but it’s neither, really. The two questions that preoccupy Maud – where is her friend Elizabeth, and what happened to her sister Sukey who disappeared in the aftermath of the war 70 years ago – are not very mysterious and the reader can guess the answers fairly on. And though the book is a page-turner, it’s not because you’re breathless to find out what happened to Elizabeth and Sukey, but because you’re so immersed in Maud’s headlong world, and so emotionally connected to her. You really care about what happens to her, and you feel for those caught up in her confusion – her daughter Helen and her grand-daughter Katy, not to mention the son of her friend Elizabeth and the doctor trying to give her a mini-mental examination.
Healey has taken on a huge technical challenge in writing through the perspective of a dementing woman, and some have questioned whether it’s credible that Maud can write so clearly about her thoughts and experiences. I think that misses the point. This is stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s not Maud’s considered voice we’re listening to. We’re sharing in her inner experience – the rich world of the senses and of past experience that is not lost when short-term memory fails. Maud can’t cope in the world of short-term memory, but in the moment she is just like all of us.
It’s dark out here, but there’s a glimmer of grey light somewhere low in the sky; it will be day soon and I must finish this. A mist of rain clings to my hair; to my arms and thighs. It makes me shiver but thankfully doesn’t disturb the soil. That stays in its perimeter pile. I have to lean right in to dig now. A long breath, pulled deep into my lungs, leaves me with the raw wet taste of the bruised earth. My knees shift, nestled in the sodden ground, and the fabric of my trousers slowly draws moisture up my legs. Soil is caked on my hands and driven into my fingernails to the point of pain. Somewhere, somewhere, the other half of the compact hides. In front of me is a hole, a hole that I’ve been digging, in the middle of the green garden carpet. And suddenly I can’t think what I’m doing here, what it is I’m looking for. (62)
There are many such rich moments as Maud’s thoughts blunder in and out of focus, moving between the present and the 70-year-old past when Sukey disappeared, and gradually the two worlds draw closer to each other. The recurrent themes of digging, of searching in empty houses, of the frightening mad woman chasing the child Maud and of the lost loved one weave together in a way that’s both psychologically convincing and poetically satisfying. The book is funny, too; Maud is very sharp in picking up on the exasperated or patronising body-language of those she deals with and the insincere “niceness” people adopt. The scene where the doctor administers the mini-mental and another in which Maud visits the local newspaper to put an ad in made me laugh out loud.
The book has been compared to Gone Girl (which I haven’t read). The book it reminded me of was Mark Haddon’s The Mysterious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which also takes on the challenge of writing about complex emotions through a naïve voice. Healey won the Costa Prize for a debut novel and was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction. Highly recommended.
Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing (Viking 2014).