Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

IMG_1184 (3) Maud is in her eighties, has lived in the same English coastal town since childhood, and has dementia. Her equally elderly friend Elizabeth is missing, she is sure of it. The scrawled notes she keeps in her pocket and around the house tell her so although no-one seems to be doing anything about it. As with Christopher Nolan’s Memento, we know it is impossible to put together a coherent train of thought if you cannot keep in mind basic points for any length of time. In fact, all the information Maud needs is available to her: but Emma Healey is good at withholding. Actually, it’s not just Elizabeth who is missing. Maud’s beloved sister Sukey also disappeared, just after the war. When the dual narrative kicks in, there is a slight sinking feeling. Do we really need a second mystery? But stick with it. What seems at first to intrude as a simple, structural device is not just there to pad out the pages. Healey knows what she’s doing and offers us another two or three mini-intrigues on top. This approach is saved – more or less – from being pat and formulaic by the creation of Maud: it would be hard to find a more unreliable narrator. At its best, the narrative has a dreamlike, disconnected quality: Maud’s inner voice sometimes tumbles over into direct speech without you – like Maud – being aware of it, leading to confused answers to questions which were never meant to be posed. It is unsettling – an effect which mirrors perfectly the mental state of the protagonist and makes uneasy sense for the reader too. Healey is also very good on the little indignities and major frustrations and fears of being elderly and vulnerable. Maud – or at least much of Maud – is missing too, of course, which means there are constant threads of pervasive melancholy. By the end of it all, a tiny shard of glass has achieved great and moving significance. Elizabeth Is Missing won the Costa First Novel Award. Whether such literary bunfights have anything other than commercial worth is a moot point. But regardless of that, for the author, this piece of work is a really, really good start.

 

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