Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Books - Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

This is a novel I keep hearing people talk about. It’s a mix of crime thriller and complex psychological literary experiment – a strange combination that works. Our narrator is Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia, who realises she hasn’t seen her friend Elizabeth for quite some time. Still haunted by the disappearance of her sister almost seventy years ago, Maud latches onto the apparent disappearance of her friend. The novel then gives us an interweaving narrative both of Maud at eighty-two and of Maud at sixteen or so (I presume) when her sister disappeared.

With the exception of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen (which I reviewed a few weeks ago), Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is probably the most moving thing I’ve read in the last year. Healey narrates Maud’s dementia and increasing forgetfulness in a really tender and touching way. They are some brilliant details. Whether from films and real life we’re very used to the image of an elderly person not quite recognising their relations, their own children, or maybe forgetting where they live – but it’s the internal details I found particularly moving. There are moments when Maud forgets the words for certain objects. In her mind and narration a bath is not a ‘bath’ but a ‘cooking pot for humans’; cigarettes become ‘the things you light up’, and umbrellas are ‘shield’s from the rain. It’s makes the prose more authentic, and the story more poignant.

It’s an incredibly cleverly written novel, one that I imagine must have been very difficult to write on a technical level. The reader may know what Maud did and said three paragraphs ago, but she often has no idea. It makes it not only heart-wrenching to read at times, but shows off Healey’s excellent writing. The subtle repetition throughout of phrases, questions and memories, is very effective throughout. To weave a gripping plot into this complex narrative voice, as Healey does, is something that really impressed me.

The characterisation throughout is strong. Maud is sympathetic, complex and wonderful, and I like Helen and Katy too. In the flashbacks I really get a sense of Sukey and of her and Maud’s relationship before her disappearance. Frank and Douglas were in some ways to my mind the strongest characters in the book (with the exception perhaps of Maud). Frank especially was very cleverly and ambiguously drawn, so that I could never quite make out his character, in a really good way. However, I would have liked to know more about Patrick, to have a few more flashbacks to Maud’s life with him than those few glimpses we do get. And the character I really wanted more from was Elizabeth. The novel is structured around the fact that ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, but we see very little of her and Maud’s friendship. I love the little detail that Maud often brings her chocolate that her son doesn’t let her have, but I wanted more. It would have been nice (and perhaps natural, in terms of how memory works), if amongst those the flashbacks more relevant to the plot, we could have had other ones, memories of her and Elizabeth’s friendship. I did find at times in this novel that Elizabeth feels too much like a narrative device to let Maud explore the past.

Which brings me on to another point. I love novels that have two interweaving stories, and I especially love novels that have a historical story weaved into a present day narrative. I love that aspect of the structure of the novel – but at times it does feel a little clumsily done. That is, Healey feels the need to find a specific trigger for every memory Maud has of the past, a moment, a smell, a word, a face, and so on. Now on the one hand, this is natural, and old memories are often triggered by little things, I imagine especially so if your memory is fading – but not in neat chronological order. I would have been more than happy for the narrative to just skip into past tense and into Maud’s memories of the past. As it is each transition feels a little clumsy and formulaic, especially as most chapters tend to have the same structure: present, past flashback, present. These moments of transition feel often quite unnatural, which brought me out of the story. Still, this is a minor point in the midst of a great novel.

And now we come to the ending. I’ve heard a few people on twitter getting a little cross about the ending of Elizabeth is Missing, and I myself am conflicted about it. The final chapter is fitting, moving, superb. I had tears in my eyes. (On a side note, it’s just occurred to me that this blog of mine must give the impression that the majority of my life is spent crying over books, mostly whilst on trains. I promise it isn’t entirely true. It’s merely that I happen to read a lot of sad books, and if a novel brings me to tears I absolutely want to review it and share it with the world. I don’t just cry indiscriminately at everything I read. I promise.) Anyway, the thing is that I’m less sure about the rest of the ending, about the resolution itself. It’s not that I didn’t like it or that I don’t think it works so much as that I’m just not sure. If you want to read more about my view on the ending click the spoiler button below, but please only do so if you’ve read the novel, because it’s a great book and I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

Overall, I really like Elizabeth is Missing. It’s not only a great mystery story and an engaging read, but an incredibly poignant account of someone suffering from dementia. Its beautifully written and generally well-articulated. I strongly recommend it.

Greatest strength: I think the natural and poignantly written depiction of Maud’s dementia.

Greatest weakness: As I mentioned earlier, the slightly clumsy transitions between present and past.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Elizabeth is missing!’ I shout. I shout so the part of my brain that forgets will stop forgetting. ‘Elizabeth is missing!’ I shout it again and again.

Next week: The Veil of Anonymity, by Lauriane Povey

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  1. SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!Hi.I got a real pit drop in my stomach as I reached the conclusion and Maud says she buried Sukey(just after they've discovered her remains buried in Elizabeth's garden) and Helen says 'no you didn't".Maud drifts into reverie and remembers burying Sukey in the sand at the beach when they were ids,but seems confused and hesitant when she says this.It's like the memories have overlapped and both are true.Sukey killed her sister.She was very jealous of her life and was attracted to her husband.After killing Sukey she always wore her clothes and make up and went to the same dances like her,she so wanted to be her and needed to replace her......Oh god I don't know...but there was something there at the ending of the book that threw me.As has been stated,the narrator of the book is very unreliable!!Does anyone else think this to be the case??

    1. Interesting! I hadn't thought of it like that, but I suppose you could read it like that, and the end was quite confusing... How do you think that would work with the 'mad woman' and her role in the story?

  2. Hi,thanks for the reply.I'm probably reaching with my interpretation,but I think I'm on to something or maybe its just me !But that passage is very disconcerting in how Maud's fractured mind slips into the truth for a mere second and then her memories start to meld and break again.It is only about three lines in the book,but it was enough to startle me.I actually think the 'mad woman' is just a standard literary device to juxtapose Maud's present day mental state and the 'mad womans' mental state to show how they both reacted to the loss of a loved one and how society can misread their behaviours and marginalise them from society as being odd or peculiar.They both suffered similar fates in regards to their losses.Hey I'm just riffing,I have no idea really.Would be interesting to see it on the big screen.Saoirse Ronan to play Sukey,Vanessa Redgrave to play Maud!You heard it here first.

    1. Ooo very interesting. I feel like it's the kind of book I really need to reread! But yeah, I'd love to see a film of it. I'm sure they must be doing it - it's been so popular.

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  4. So I didn´t understand so well where Sukey was found and what happened to Elizabeth? Can you help me pleeasse!? :)