Book Reviews

Elizabeth is Missing– Emma Healey

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

2 replies on “Elizabeth is Missing– Emma Healey”

Dear Queens University Research Team,

I am an undergraduate student completing a dissertation considering dementia fiction and have been finding this blog invaluable for providing some direction for my reading. However, I have encountered some problems with my project and have tried to resolve these issues on my own. Since this is quite a specialist area, I have been unable to speak about these issues with a member of staff from my university. I would therefore be extremely grateful for any advice you are able to offer upon the issues that I am facing when researching within this area. I have been considering fiction in line with your research upon ‘mind style’ and have therefore been considering how literary techniques are used to create an imaginative insight into how it may feel to experience dementia. I have been considering the following narratives: Bernlef’s ‘Out of Mind’, LaPlante’s ‘Turn of Mind’, Healey’s ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ and Genova’s ‘Still Alice’. However, since I am completing an undergraduate dissertation, I only have the room to consider two texts and have found it different to match these texts up with a focus. I do not want to consider dementia fiction from the crime genre, however, I really enjoyed Healey’s text and have found that the use of the unreliable narrator is very similar to that created by Bernlef.

However, I am extremely worried about comparing Bernlef and Healey’s texts as a result of the 30 year gap in their publication dates and the fact that Healey’s novel is obviously of the detective genre. However, I would really like to consider these texts alongside one another for their similar use of literary techniques.

I planned to focus upon two questions for my dissertation which were how literary texts use devices to provide an imaginative insight into the experience of dementia, and the ethics of doing so (considering both the positive and negative implications in creating these perspectives). I would greatly appreciate any advice that you are able to provide as to whether you feel, from your expertise, that the differences between these texts can be overcome?

For example, I particularly worry about considering the representation of memory and temporal confusion considering the fact that, as helpfully mentioned in your blog post, memory operates in Healey’s novel as a narrative device. This is perhaps something to include in the ethics section of my dissertation, however, I do not want to overcrowd this section with too many thoughts as I also want to consider the positive ethics of these narratives. I also worry that it may be problematic to compare such differing representations whereby the portrayal of memory in Healey’s texts clearly serves an additional purpose to its portrayal in Out of Mind.

I understand that as researchers you must be very busy and would therefore be really grateful for any advice you are able to provide upon this since I have really been struggling to solve these issues on my own.

I look forward to hopefully hearing from you.

Best Wishes,
Isobel Yeomans

Hi Isobel, great to hear from you and thank you so much for being in touch. Having had a quick read of your comments I imagine you might be better served by making contact with my colleague who is carrying out the linguistics research, (I’m afraid I’m not actually an academic. I’m a novelist myself and very much focused on the community engagement side of the project). I really appreciate that the book reviews have been useful though and am looking forward to posting more over the months to come. I’m at if you want to send a copy of this comment on to me and I can forward it on to my much better informed colleagues. Have a great week. Jan

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