Saturday 6 December 2014

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Emma Healey has created an extraordinary narrator in Maud Horsham, who in her eighties, is suffering from dementia. As the novel progresses, so does her dementia, with cups of tea left around the house, undrunk, and she forgets she has eaten, consuming large quantities of toast. There are messages on the kitchen wall to remind her not to cook, and there are notes in her handbag telling herself what she mustn't forget.
    The most important of these is that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. Maud's daughter, Helen, does what she can, but in spite of her mother's concern for her missing friend, Helen is not very sympathetic - she has explained about Elizabeth before.
     Elizabeth's absence is echoed in another story thread going back to just after the war when Maud was sixteen. Living in the same seaside town, Maud and her parents are frantic with worry about the disappearance of Maud's older sister, Sukey.
    Everyone seems to adore Sukey, with her warm-hearted nature, who is a wonderful dressmaker, always looking well turned out. She is married to Frank, a bit of a shady character, dabbling in the black market, but with plenty of charm. Frank likes to do a good turn - his delivery trucks are just the ticket for moving house and with rationing in full swing, Frank's little parcels of food are a huge boost to the family housekeeping, although not approved of by Maud's father, or Douglas, the young boarder who seems to have a bit of a crush on Sukey.
    When Sukey disappears, no one knows if it is because of the 'mad woman' who chases after the girls with her umbrella, or because of one of Frank's deals gone wrong. At first it seems she might be in hiding, but as the days turn into weeks and months, Maud's family come to realise that she may well be dead.
    Somewhere in Maud's unreliable mind are the clues to bring this mystery to an end, seventy odd years later, if she can only string her thoughts together. And how is she to make Helen, the police or Elizabeth's bullying son understand?
    Elizabeth Is Missing is on one level a gripping mystery novel, but more than that it is a cleverly understood picture of what dementia might be like, and even more incredibly it comes from the pen of an author in her twenties. It is not an easy read, as Maud can be so frustrating, and it is unsettling to think that her state of mind could one day be the experience of any of us, or someone we love. Yet this is a compelling read, evocative and haunting, by a very promising story-teller.

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