Debut author Emma Healey won the Costa Book Awards in 2014 for Elizabeth is Missing, a clever and gripping novel about a woman who is trying to solve a decades old crime whilst living with Dementia. The novel is narrated by Maud, an elderly lady who is increasingly confused about both the world around her and important events from her past. Maud’s good friend Elizabeth hasn’t come to visit in quite some time and Maud is becoming extremely worried about her. She pesters the GP and repeatedly phones Elizabeth’s son in the middle of the night. She drives her own daughter Helen crazy with constant questions about Elizabeth. Maud’s distress is amplified by the fact that Dementia is blurring the line between past and present. Elizabeth’s disappearance has become muddled in her mind with the disappearance of her older sister Sukey, seventy years previously. Memories of the two women blend and intertwine inside Elizabeth’s head.
“Perhaps I should put a note through Elizabeth’s door. Just to say I’ve been. Just to say I was looking for her, in case she comes back. Dad did that for Sukey.”
Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator. She can no longer hold her own train of thought and this makes it difficult for the reader to keep track of her investigations as she takes notes, searches for clues and tries to follow leads, hoping to find out what’s happened to Elizabeth and, by default, Sukey. It’s difficult to process which pieces of information offered by Maud are true and which red herrings, or misinterpretations. We’re not sure which case is real and which a figment of Maud’s imagination. Though possessed by the notion that she’s on some kind of urgent quest -a common occurrence in people living with Dementia- at times Maud doesn’t know what she’s trying to accomplish herself.
“Even if I knew what I wanted, how could I ever find it? ‘I’m looking for something,’ I say to the man, ‘I just can’t recall, you know.”
Whilst I have some reservations about the use of Dementia as a narrative device -here, as a vehicle for solving a mystery- and I think the novel’s conclusion is a little too neat, Elizabeth is Missing is still an interesting glimpse into the experience of a person living with Dementia. It’s rare to find a first person narrator with Dementia employed throughout the entirety of the book and the range and scope of Maud’s experience -thoughts, memories, interpretations and dialogue- offers a really comprehensive snapshot of both what it’s like to live with Dementia and the resulting confusion, and how other people react to the condition. For me, the standout moments in the novel are those sections where Maud gives the reader insight into how she’s treated and viewed by her family, healthcare professionals and the other people she comes across. These sections read as extremely realistic and quite illuminating. Elizabeth is Missing is also an infinitely readable novel with a clever, well-structured plot and Maud is a genuinely likable and complex protagonist who I enjoyed spending time with.
Elizabeth is Missing was published by Viking in 2014