Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey is part mystery, part historical, part grim (and funny!) realism.
Maud, 82, is worried because her friend Elizabeth seems to be missing. Maud has not seen or heard from her for weeks. When she learns from one of the neighbors that Elizabeth’s son, who Maud has always thought cold and greedy, has been selling off his mother’s things, Maud suspects that something is up, and she decides to find out what has happened to her friend. It’s just that no one else wants to help her.
The novel moves back and forth between the now, where Maud is trying to discover where Elizabeth has gone, and Maud’s childhood, telling the story of when her sister Sukey disappeared, never to be seen again. The two disappearances are linked in Maud’s mind, and sometimes she is not able to separate the two. Because she forgets. And forgets again. And the memories that are clearest are those from many years ago.
Maud does not really take her forgetting into account – after all, she can remember lots of things! After her follows a trail of cooling teacups, holes dug in other people’s gardens and dropped notes reminding her what is important to remember. It is a terrible joke to say that she has forgotten that she forgets things, but partly, that is what she has. Or not forgotten, exactly; it is more as if she is continuously rationalising, convincing herself that she cannot be that bad. Her daughter tells her not to leave the house, but she does over and over – often resulting in humiliation or injury.
Because we feel Maud’s irritation at being managed all the time, we desperately want to believe her – maybe her family and her doctor really are overbearing; maybe they do exaggerate her illness. We want Maud to win, to prove herself, to show that she is still in control. The tragedy of it all is that there is no getting better with dementia.
Instead of writing Maud from the outside, or seen through the eyes of the people around her, Healey makes Maud the narrator, giving us Maud’s thoughts as they appear – and disappear. Maud is not wallowing in her lost memories or despairing that she forgets even her own family – she is frustrated at being told what to do at every turn, at not being believed about Elizabeth, at not having her worry being taken seriously. She is on a mission, and the forgetting is simply something that makes it more difficult.
As time goes on, Maud becomes progressively worse, but she does not stop to register it – at least not most of the time. When she gets to the point where she starts to lose words for common things, such as pencils or chairs, she does not panic about it or think about the consequences; she simply moves around it by describing the things’ function or looks instead (thing for sitting on, wooden thing with lead in it, and so on). We see that she is deteriorating, but except for in sudden moments of clarity, she does not.
It would have been easy to make this story sentimental, but Healey avoids that. Instead we get what feels like a truthful version of what dementia can look like on the inside. I do not know anyone with the disease, so I am not qualified to tell, but to me, Maud seems real. And what I think is the most important part of the novel is that she is real to herself as well. She does not stop being herself because she is ill. She wants to continue living her life, doing the things she is used to. She behaves throughout as if she were in full control over herself, her memories and her life. She is not only some old woman or a patient or a mother/grandmother who must be looked after; she is Maud. She has her own history, her own personality. When she does things that look odd on the outside, other people assume she is acting irrationally, but she is not. She acts out of the information available to her in the here and now. I remember thinking this when I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, too, that all the main character’s actions made perfect sense when I knew what lay behind them, and that the novel taught me to recognize a new point of view.
The stereotype of the batty old woman makes it easy for others to dismiss Maud’s worries. When the people around her attribute everything she says and does to her disease, Maud’s real needs are not being met. She is not seen as capable of deciding what these are any more. Her opinions are not valid; her impulses are faulty. At least she gets this chance to show her side of the story.
*Nobody has asked me to write this review, and I have not received any payment or gift for it.