Elizabeth Missing is the impressive debut novel by Emma Healey. It has been showered with critical praise and in addition to being nominated for multiple awards was a winner at the 2014 Costa Book Awards, picking up the prize for best first novel.
‘I reach for the phone. Button number four is Elizabeth. It rings and rings. I make a note’
As the title suggests this is at its core a mystery novel but is not your typical thriller. Its protagonist, eighty-two year old Maud seems an unlikely detective. In addition to being in her later years Maud is also struggling with dementia. As Maud becomes increasingly muddled – when even a trip to the shop leads to confusion and a surplus of tinned peaches – would anyone trust what Maud has to say? This is true for both the characters and the reader. The story is told by Maud herself, so she can certainly be considered an unreliable narrator. It is never quite clear whether the information she presents is correct which keeps up the interest in the story. Despite her confusion there is one thing Maud is certain of – her friend Elizabeth is still missing, and she is determined to find her…
‘I don’t want to go into a home, Helen’ I say….’you’re not going into one, Mum’
The other key theme in the novel is dementia, said to have been inspired by Healey’s own experiences of the illness. There were many moments in the book that are poignant. I thought that it was a moving, compelling look at how dementia can affect not only the sufferer but their families and anyone they come into contact with. In particular I liked the character of Helen, Maud’s daughter. You can really see the frustration Helen has as she tries to look after her mother, the struggles she is faced with. But despite her difficulties, her love and dedication to her mother are clear.
‘I didn’t know if it was Sukey’s, but there was something odd about it, something sinister’
In addition to the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s whereabouts there is a second mystery in the story surrounding the disappearance of a second person. There is the matter of the absence of Maud’s sister Sukey, who has not been seen for some seventy years. This twin mystery element worked really well. Maud’s present day recollections and memories of her past are skilfully interwoven. This makes the story even more gripping as we try to uncover the truth about both missing parties. There is also a doubt about whether the incidents are linked or whether Maud is recalling information about one that may relate to the other.
‘…they’ve been labelled like my KETTLE plug and my TEA jar. Their label is POLICE’
Despite the difficult subject matter it tackles, Elizabeth is Missing is not a particularly dark novel. It is a charming book, gently humorous in places. Whilst providing an interesting detective story to keep us hooked it also offers much more about family, love, loss and hope. It is a thoroughly readable story of mystery, and a meditation on the power of memory.