Elizabeth Is Missing gripped me from the first page. It is a poignant, sometimes funny, and often painfully suspenseful novel, not so much because of the mysteries it is structured around–the present puzzle about Maud’s missing friend Elizabeth and the question of what happened to Maud’s sister Sukey in the past–but because I was so anxious on Maud’s behalf. Maud is in her eighties and is just tipping over into senility, or perhaps dementia. Although her recollections of her childhood are vivid and detailed, she is losing her grip on her current everyday reality; everything from going to the store to making toast has become nearly impossible for her, but Maud doesn’t quite know that. So we follow along helplessly as she repeatedly wanders into trouble of one kind or another, in spite of the helpful notes she relies on as prompts and warnings (Coffee helps memory, Don’t cook anything, Haven’t heard from Elizabeth).
Healey does a superb job with Maud’s first-person narration. Her shifts in and out of clarity are subtle, and each time she loses the thread it’s a fresh little shock. She goes to Elizabeth’s house, for instance, looking for signs of her friend’s presence, and then decides to knock on the neighbor’s door to see what he knows. He’s a friendly young fellow with a friendly dog. “He’s just going for the sympathy vote,” says the young man;
“Hoping you’ve got a biscuit on you.”
I begin to look through my bag.
“Oh, no,” he says. “Don’t. We’ve got plenty, he’s just greedy. You’re not a friend of Mum’s, are you? Did you want something?”
“No,” I say. “No. Thank you.”
“Wasn’t it you who knocked?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, walking away.
Maud’s mental confusion is not just a gimmick: it is also integral to the unfolding mystery. Healey weaves the parts together effectively, bringing us closer and closer to understanding even as Maud struggles herself to see how the bits and pieces she is hanging on to and the seemingly random questions that, to everyone else’s annoyance, she just can’t let to of (Where is a good place to plant marrows?) belong together.
The novel’s resolution is not, ultimately, much of a revelation, but it is still satisfying. What I appreciated most about it, and about the book overall, is that everything about it turns on love and loyalty. Elizabeth Is Missing is certainly a clever book, but it is never clever at Maud’s expense. Maud may forget why she went to the store, she may be baffled and annoyed by the interference of her long-suffering daughter Helen, but she knows that it matters what happens to the people we care about, and she knows that when we are worried about someone we should not stop trying to help them. The novel is suffused with tenderness, especially (though we see this only indirectly) Helen’s for her faltering mum. It’s the scenes between the two of them that will linger with me the longest. At one point Maud has wandered away from home and Helen, following, rests with her at a bus shelter. “How did you get this?” Maud asks, noticing a bruise on Helen’s wrist that she doesn’t remember was her own doing.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
“It matters to me. You’re my daughter. If you’re hurt, it matters to me. I love you very much.”
She stares at me for a moment and I worry I haven’t used the right words, and then I feel a sudden exhaustion.
Prompted by her companion, Maud sits down to rest and then turns “to say something to the woman who is sitting next to me, but tears are running down her cheeks. . . . I don’t know what to do to help her. I can’t work out who she is.” She struggles to figure out what’s wrong, and then the woman looks away and then looks back. “It’s Helen,” Maud realizes; “I’ve been sitting in a bus shelter with her, not knowing who she was.” There is relief in that recognition, in that restoration of identity, but there is also so much sorrow. The tragic story Maud recovers is better known–the truth itself matters, for love and for justice. There’s little comfort to be had, though, for Maud’s own encroaching tragedy with its inevitable end.
I read this when it was first published — I think it was on the Women’s Prize longlist? — and I was so impressed with it. What I really loved is that Maud feels like a real person with an identity and personality separate from her dementia; the dementia is not her only identifying characteristic, and it so easily could have been in a lesser book.
That’s so true, and I think that’s what makes it so painful and sad when you know she’s lost it for a bit. As you say, done badly it would have made her into a cliche.