Title: Elizabeth Is Missing
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers / June 10, 2014
Maud has told everyone she can that something horrible has happened to her friend, Elizabeth. However, Maud is 82 and rapidly falling further and further into dementia. She habitually visits the local market to purchase canned peaches, despite having a cabinet full at home. Cold cups of tea she has forgotten to drink rest on a shelf in the hall. Getting someone to listen to her, much less believe her, is nearly impossible. In fact, her daughter, Helen, is only more and more frustrated by Maud’s growing concern for Elizabeth. Peter, Elizabeth’s son, has told Helen that his mother is fine and that there is no need to worry.
But Maud knows that is not the truth, and that Peter can’t be trusted. Her pockets are full of sticky notes on which she has written everything important down, including several notes to herself that Elizabeth is missing.
Complicating matters is the fact that Elizabeth’s disappearance has sparked something in Maud’s failing memory. Something about her sister, Sukey, who vanished in 1946 when Maud was only 14. Something that makes her need to find out what happened to Elizabeth even more desperate. The cryptic clues her mind provides, though, and her quickly diminishing sense of reality keep pushing the answers to what happened to Elizabeth, and possibly Sukey, just beyond her grasp.
Words are not wasted in this novel, and Healey uses each one to its maximum potential. The narrative is divided into two parts: one from Maud’s perspective in the present and flashbacks to 1946, when Maud was 14. This plot device enriches the story and provides contrasting images of Maud at two very different stages of her life. Also effective is the presentation of how information from these flashbacks is channeled, at random and slightly skewed, back through 82-year-old Maud’s mind to the people around her. Any clues she offers are ignored because her delivery of them makes no sense.
Healey took great care in making Maud a very layered and engaging character. Delicate touches bring her to life in a way that is easily relatable, such as how Maud’s cheeks redden when she is teased or her panic when she forgets things that happened only moments before. She holds tight to her dignity when she is dismissed by people due to her dementia but, when she does have moments of clarity, she comprehends how heavily it affects her loved ones.
Supporting characters are also diverse, with motivations that add depth to and reinforce the narrative. One or two characters could have been fleshed out a bit more, but overall the people surrounding Maud in either setting are real and their actions genuine. Maud’s interactions with her daughter and granddaughter as they take care of her, Sukey’s odd behavior at the last dinner with her family, the differing ways Maud’s parents cope with Sukey’s disappearance – these all feel organic.
The settings, too, are richly detailed and solidly transport readers to each Maud’s version of Southampton. The 1946 setting – with its background of a Britain just starting to recover from WWII – is especially vivid. Subtle details, such as the ongoing effects of rationing and the rebuilding of bombed homes and businesses, are sprinkled throughout.
An intriguing story and Healey’s brilliant characterization skills make Elizabeth Is Missing a very strong debut novel; however, not one without faults. The central mystery moves the plot forward, but feels almost as if it was included as an afterthought; the main focus is on Maud and her increasing dementia. The ending is somewhat choppy and answers a few important questions too swiftly, almost too fast to really let the events that happen sink in fully. This vagueness does befit the situation considering Maud’s deteriorating mental faculties. Some readers, though, may feel uncomfortable with the lack of solid closure and Maud’s unreliability as a narrator.