Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, book review: Extraordinary tale of ordinary tragedy


Philippa Perry
Thursday 05 June 2014 13:31 BST

Normally a well-observed, literary novel that accurately shows us ourselves by deepening our knowledge of what it is to be human cannot manage, as well, to be both a comedy and a thriller. Elizabeth is Missing, however, encompasses these genres and deserves prizes in all categories.

The book starts with our heroine and narrator, Maud, in Elizabeth's garden. She has found a fragment of an old compact case and seems to know it is important, although for the moment cannot figure out why. Maud is in her 80s and can still get about, just. Her daughter and carers wish that she wouldn't as her memory is not good, she is frail and liable to get lost and they worry. She in turn feels infantilised by them and defends her right to buy as many tins of peaches as she wants. I felt I could identify with both Maud and her carers.

Maud has one friend left, Elizabeth, and having a laugh with her is the only time that she feels like herself. But Elizabeth has gone missing and Maud is obsessed about this disappearance. She takes on the task of collecting clues so that she can solve the mystery of what has happened to Elizabeth. Whatever else she forgets, she will not let go of this obsession with her missing friend and as the book progresses, we realise why this goes so deep into her psyche. During the war, her older sister Sukey also went missing, and that too is a mystery that was never solved. Will Maud solve two mysteries in one?

Not only have we several genres in the one novel, we have two main themes. How it feels to experience dementia, and a page-turner of a detective story. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be beautiful. It is a gripping thriller, but it's also about life and love: the love of an exasperated daughter for her mother; the love of sisters and of friends and the love I felt for Maud. Our narrator has taught me to be more patient with my own demented father when he is insistent that something is important even though I find it hard to believe him. Somehow Emma Healey manages to get into Maud's head without making it depressing or boring. It's moving, but not bleak. You follow the strange logic and it suddenly makes sense.

This is an extraordinary tale of believable, ordinary tragedy. Definitely one for the shortlists and the book clubs.

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