The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for impatience with the elderly


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Impatience with the elderly

Cure: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Most of us don't find it too hard to be patient with a meandering toddler who gets in our way. It's not their fault they're slow and unsteady, after all. But stuck behind a grey-haired driver doing 20 on an empty road or held up at the till by an old dear fumbling in her purse for 96p, we tend to be less accommodating. If the incapacities of the superannuated get your goat, quash your ungenerous feelings with Emma Healey's first novel. It will awaken your sympathies for those in the autumn of their lives – and give you the chance to set a good example before you become one of their number yourself.

Maud, aged 82, still lives in her own house, but increasingly poses a danger to herself. She forgets to turn the gas off, can't remember why she came to the corner shop, and is niggled by disturbing memories that have her phoning neighbours at 4am. She writes endless notes to remind herself what she's doing, then stuffs them in her pockets and forgets them. And all the while she becomes anxious about the whereabouts of her friend Elizabeth, whose empty house she keeps revisiting. Maud's long-suffering daughter Helen is exasperated by her mother's insistence that something sinister is going on; but this doesn't stop Maud reporting Elizabeth's absence – repeatedly – to the police.

Just as we – along with Helen and the neighbours – have just about had enough, a darker side to Maud's ramblings rises to the surface. Something happened 70 years ago which may resonate with Elizabeth's disappearance. As Healey weaves past and present together, we realise that Maud's community should perhaps be listening to her after all. By the end, you'll have a permanent place in your heart for Maud. Make room there for the other venerables around you, too. And when it's your turn to stand in the corner shop wondering what you came in for, there might just be a friendly face ready to help.