It’s Mad Martha with you today to share a haiku review for a book that we have read recently and very much enjoyed. Dealing, as it does, with senior citizens, we were already predisposed to feel affection towards it, but the writing and the plot have cemented this book as one which will remain with us for a long time (ironically, given the afflictions of the main character). I speak, of course, of Elizabeth is Missing, a contemporary literary fiction novel by Emma Healey.
The book follows the slow decline of Maud, an elderly lady who experiences a constant feeling of distress at the fact that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing, and this distress is exacerbated by the fact that no one seems to believe her. Maud, it must be said, is also suffering from what can only be described as dementia, but despite forgetting to turn the cooker off, the names of her carers, and various other important facts of her day-to-day existence, the pressing need to find out where Elizabeth has got to consumes her waking mind. As Maud’s condition deteriorates, she is drawn ever deeper into memories of her past, in which her older sister, Sukey, also mysteriously disappeared without trace shortly after the War. While Maud’s daughter Helen does all she can to distract and reassure her ailing mother about the current mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, nothing will stand in the way of the indomitable Maud as her disintegrating mind works to uncover the secrets that are being hidden from her. With single-minded purpose, Maud continues on her quest to find Elizabeth, and in the process inadvertantly digs up some clues that may also help solve a family mystery that has persisted for rather longer.
What was it again?
My friend, yes! She’s missing! Who?
Healey has done a fantastic job here of capturing the frustration, confusion and general sense of loss that accompany the decline of a once-agile mind without sinking any of her characters into a mire of depression. From her own recollections of girlhood, we can tell that Maud has always had a curious and fairly tenacious personality and this is reflected in the character’s ever more drastic attempts to make people aware that Elizabeth is missing and that something must be done about it. Helen, Maud’s daughter and carer, is realistically portrayed as a frustrated woman of middle-age trying to manage both teenage daughter and elderley mother simultaneously. While I was reading I had the strongest feelings of resonance between the events and emotions portrayed in this fictional work with the events and emotions portrayed in the real-life memoir of Andrea Gillies, Keeper: One House, Three Generations and A Journey into Alzheimer’s, in which Gillies describes being a full-time carer for her mother-in-law. Despite Maud’s hot-and-cold relationship with Helen as her disease progresses, Healey never demonises Helen but, I think, strikes a nice balance between the frustration of the declining and the frustration of the carer.
My favourite relationship here is that between Maud and her grand-daughter Katy – throughout the book Maud has a hit-and-miss record of remembering who Katy is, but it is obvious that Katy, slightly rebellious teenager that she is, is the only one prepared to meet Maud where she’s at. The two have some brilliant conversations in which the patronising tone of other adults in the book towards Maud is completely absent and it’s delightful to see how this simple dynamic changes Maud’s outlook and reminds her that she is still a functioning individual on many levels.
Apart from the fantastic characterisation in the book, the mystery of Elizabeth has a nice arc of suspense to it. Although as the story moves on, the reader can make some educated guesses about Elizabeth’s whereabouts, the final reveal is compounded by this new (old) mystery of the disappearence of Maud’s older sister. There’s a good sense of balance played out between the two mysteries – as one begins to wind down in the mind of the reader, the other is picked up, creating a continuous sense of puzzlement that is reflected in both Maud’s actions and the actions of those around her.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a clever twist on your standard cosy-type mystery. Although there is a bit of humour peppered throughout the book, it felt to me to be quite a dense read, so I would suggest picking it up when you have plenty of time to unravel the threads of memory along with Maud.
Until we meet again, may your ration books be plump and juicy and your marrows be ever filled with stamps…or something like that, anyway.
* I received a digital copy of Elizabeth is Missing from the publisher via Netgalley *