Elizabeth is Missing explores a human condition many of us have witnessed or remain fearful of but one where we have little comprehension of the inner torment suffered. That human condition is dementia or in this novel, perhaps it is the onset of senility; a judgement that belongs to the reader. Either way, the effect is to produce a state of confusion, stress and anxiety.
Emma Healey brilliantly explores the inner mind of Maud by telling her story through a first person narrative. We perceive all of the events in Maud’s life, past and present through the prism of her highly confused and forgetful state. Her perception of events, people and places differ markedly from the perceptions of those around her, particularly daughter Helen. These differences merge into annoyances and after endless confusing repetitions, particularly the whereabouts of her friend Elizabeth and daughter Sukey, her anxieties and fears are eventually dismissed as the regretful meanderings of her depleted mental condition.
The imaginative concept used by Emma Healey to try and understand the machinations of a demented mind comes with an equally imaginative twist in the plot. Amid the apparent irrational and obsessive behaviour and forgetfulness, could there be a memory that is real and rational and fundamental to understanding present day behaviour? A seed of truth that has been obfuscated by a confused mental state. Well I am not about to spoil your read. For the answer you will need to read the book.
Anyone who has been close to a loved one suffering dementia will readily identify with the frustrations, helplessness and deep sadness experienced in caring for an individual so affected. Daughter Helen in this novel is the primary carer and through her we obtain one (the outer) interpretation of the many challenges faced. Through the narrative of Maud comes the inner interpretation.
To construct a story entirely around the first hand account of a person suffering dementia demands innovative writing skills of the highest order. Maud has great difficulty remembering what happened one minute ago let alone the years from present day to 1946 when her daughter Sukey disappeared. Maud’s obsession with finding her friend Elizabeth whom she is certain has met foul play is an ongoing theme. Her state of mind however often confuses the whereabouts of Elizabeth with those of Sukey. We as readers are lead along a tortuous path, constantly trying to fathom or seek any rational thought that may unravel the mysteries. Daughter Helen strives in a brave but futile way to provide a reality check on her mother’s misconceptions. Yet it is the narrative of Maud alone that is key to this story and we rely upon the very odd moment of lucid thought to link events. At times the lucid thoughts appear out of character to Maude’s obviously troubled mind. In this sense there is at times some inconsistency in the storytelling style. The inconsistency could be seen as a flaw in the writing but also as a particularly clever device to highlight the underlying residue of rational thought that Maude still possesses. That skerrick of truth that in part explains her obsessive quest to find Elizabeth and Sukey and her knowledge of events hidden to others.
For a debut novel, Emma Healey has displayed great courage to explore this subject in the first person narrative. There is no easy escape route to tell the tale convincingly if the prime subject (Maud) is beyond rational thought and therefore incapable of linking vital information in a coherent chronology. Despite the enormous restraints Healey has deliberately imbued upon the character of Maude, she has produced an accomplished, deeply emotional work that delivers a realistically imagined insight on the inner world of dementia.
Elizabeth is Missing was shortlisted in 2014 for the National Book Awards categories of Popular Fiction Book and New Writer of the Year.
Elizabeth is Missing first published March 2014 by Harper
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