Written by Victoria King

Arts

Toranory: Elizabeth Is Missing

Are you sitting comfortably? Then Victoria King would like to tell you why you should read Emma Healey’s powerful and engaging book about dementia and mysteries from the past.

folded book pagesEmma Healey won the coveted Costa first novel prize for Elizabeth Is Missing in 2014. I’d already picked up the book prior to the win, enticed by the blurb and an elderly female protagonist.

Maud is an old lady with some type of dementia or memory loss, although her condition is never fully explained. She is forgetful: she buys tinned goods even though her cupboards are full and she loves tea and toast, but often forgets where she’s left her cups, a trail of which her carers complain about when they come in and out each day.

The comings and goings of everyone around her fill Maud’s day: her carers, her daughter Helen and her granddaughter Katy.

Maud feels trapped not only by being in the house – she is often told “no more going to the shops” by those around her – but also by her frustrating mental decline. She supports her memory with many handwritten notes, in her pockets, in her bag, on the kitchen wall, saying “no more toast” or “no more peaches” as she has a tendency to visit the shop, forget what she actually went for and make a default purchase of tinned peaches. However, there is one note that upsets her the most and it reads, “Elizabeth is missing”.

“The haunting depiction of dementia became very real for me, as Maud’s memories from the past return to her with increasing clarity and the present becomes a blur.”

Though she sometimes doesn’t recognise her own daughter or the rooms within her house Maud is certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She’s also determined to discover the truth, despite her belief that no one around her seems to care. Her persistence begins to irritate her daughter, the police and even Peter, Elizabeth’s son.

As her investigations continue, a parallel mystery begins to fill Maud’s thoughts: the unresolved disappearance of her sister Sukey after World War II.

It is at this point that the haunting depiction of dementia became very real for me, as Maud’s memories from the past return to her with increasing clarity and the present becomes a blur.

Having Maud as narrator makes this book both heart-warming and frustrating, giving the reader a very small insight into what life is like as the victim of memory loss.

I became more intrigued with the mystery surrounding her sister and worried less about Elizabeth, as Maud explains the los of Sukey with such emotion and conviction.

The two mysteries run their course – I won’t spoil it. One is no longer a mystery at the end of the book and the other remains so, although Maud is vindicated in her persistence.

Elizabeth Is Missing book coverI found this book upsetting and chilling in places; the cruelty of dementia is illustrated so well. Maud is a lovely but exasperating character. Her daughter Helen is beautifully written – supportive but worn down by the demands of her mother – and Sukey is so clear in her sister’s fading memory that she will remain in mine for a long time to come.

This originally written story told by a convincing, yet unreliable narrator shows what day-to-day life is like living with dementia, how it affects its victim and their family. I empathise with those people who suffer and their families who care for them. Healey thanks her grandmothers for inspiring this book and it is obvious from the beginning that she is very close to and has great love for these women.

If you like a mystery and love a plucky elderly female character, Elizabeth Is Missing is for you.

Next time I will be reading The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera.

Elizabeth Is Missing is published by Penguin.

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Written by Victoria King

Victoria is working on her first book. She is also a flag-waving survivor of Crohn’s Disease. And she loves a Mr Whippy.