Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing


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).


14 thoughts on “Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

  1. Interesting approach – to see things from the mind of a demented woman. Must be good because you felt for the woman.

    1. You certainly do. It’s interesting that such a young woman could approach this so empathetically. Apparently she had experience of it with her grandmother, and that’s where she got the idea.

  2. Recently read a memoir of Marie Williams “Green Vanilla Tea” whose brilliant 40 something husband/father descends into the abyss of dementia and worse. The voice is hers but his terror and confusion is apparent, as is the effect on their two teenage boys, family and their community. I imagine writing about loss and love is cathartic but must be tough.
    Look forward to getting to know Elizabeth.

  3. I liked this book very much when I read it last year. As you say, I think the novel’s strength comes from its vivid depiction of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman living with dementia. It’s a very impressive piece of writing.

    I was lucky enough to see Emma Healey speak at an author event around the time of publication, and it was interesting to hear a little more about the inspiration for the book. You’re probably aware of the background: Healey’s grandmother has dementia, and she used some of her experiences as a springboard for certain elements of the story.

  4. Thanks Jacqui – did you review it? I have read a transcript , perhaps of the interview you saw in which she talks about her grandmother saying “My friend is missing” -also says she was trying to write about a young woman in London and not getting anywhere with that.

  5. I normally avoid Alzheimer/dementia books as I’ve seen it first hand. Terrifying, but I bought this one on special for the kindle after reading a very positive review.
    I read Gone Girl and everyone seems to be indicating that such and such a book is ‘the next Gone Girl’ which is natural, I suppose, considering the book’s phenomenal success. I, however, cringe, at the reference. I read Gone Girl and now everyone is trying to copy the book’s structure, and while it was highly readable by the time I got to the end I was frustrated and annoyed. There’s a difference between unreliable narrator and setting the reader up deliberately. I think it’s a novel that would annoy you too.

    1. A number of friends have said the same about Gone GIrl. The hype around it annoyed me enough to put me off reading it. Yes, it’s clearly seen as a good marketing ploy to link the two. It would be interesting to know if people who loved GG like this one as much. I know that TV rights for this one have been sold, so film rights too I suppose. Speaking of which, someone was telling me about the film of Far From The Madding Crowd which doesn’t seem to have much resemblance to the book as I remember it.

  6. I did review it (in my early day of blogging when I still trying to find my feet!) There’s a link here if you’re interested. I wrote a piece on the event too – mainly for my book group as were reading the novel at the time. There’s a link in my review. It might have been the same event as the one linked to that transcript – Healey did talk about her grandmother’s belief that one of her friends was missing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s