Elizabeth is Missing

Sunday Times, 25 May 2014

Elizabeth Is Missing

by Emma Healey

Viking £12.99/ebook £8.99 pp288

Dementia is seldom out of the news these days. It is addressed as a growing social problem or whenever a scandal at a care home erupts, but it is seldom seen or portrayed from the point of view of the individuals who are living with it. Elizabeth Is Missing, however, sets out to do just that, and succeeds to a remarkable degree — so much so that it is hard to believe it is ­written by a 26-year-old and is a first novel.

At the beginning of Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud is coping with dementia in her own home, with frequent visits from her adult daughter Helen. Maud’s house is festooned with notes reminding her about the essentials of everyday life, such as which way to turn to find the kitchen. When she leaves the house, notes fall out of her pockets and she tries to remember who has written them and why. One of them is about her friend Elizabeth, whom she met when they both volunteered at a charity shop. At one point in the novel, Maud finds a scrap of paper reminding her she is due to work at the shop in the afternoon. The note is old, and there is a poignant scene in which she arrives and discovers she has forgotten that she doesn’t work there any more.

Elizabeth no longer works there either, and one of the few things Maud is certain about is that her friend is missing. When everyone, including Helen, refuses to listen to her concerns, Maud makes the perilous journey to Elizabeth’s house and finds it silent and empty. She even reports the matter to the police, and meets not just incredulity but a desk sergeant who recognises her. “Same as usual?” he asks. “Elizabeth, is it?” It turns out he has already heard the story several times. His reaction is one of the unintentional cruelties Maud encounters almost every day of her life.

Emma Healey’s ambitious novel is written in Maud’s voice, and it vividly conveys the frustration of an intelligent woman whose memory has become fragmentary. Of course, no one can really know what it is like to live with dementia, but Healey’s imagined version feels authentic, capturing her heroine’s irritation when well-meaning people do not follow her fractured thought processes. It also captures her surprise and occasional shafts of bitterness when she finds she is no longer treated as an individual: “They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under 70. False teeth, hearing aid, glasses. I’ve been given them all.”

Part of Maud’s frustration is that while her short-term memory is unreliable, she remembers events from earlier in her life with great clarity. When she finds herself in a corner shop, unable to recall what she has come for, she reverts to her wartime childhood and starts stocking up on tinned peaches. This behaviour is inexplicable to others, but it has a kind of twisted logic that Maud also brings to bear on her friend’s disappearance.

This, it transpires, is not the first time in Maud’s life that someone close to her has gone missing. Back in the Second World War, when she was a teenager, her sister Sukey vanished one night. Sukey was married to a small-time crook and the police seemed to think it was natural she had run off, but Maud never really believed it. Elizabeth’s house was built shortly afterwards and it gradually becomes apparent that there may be a link between the two disappearances.

This is no conventional crime novel but a compelling work that crosses literary genres. Maud’s experience of dementia is harrowing at times, especially in comparison to her completely lucid moments. The two mysteries at the heart of the book, too — one experienced as a girl and the other as an elderly woman — are brilliantly ­handled. The result is bold, touching and hugely memorable.

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