Anyone with experience of dementia will find Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing a moving read. Inspired by Healey’s grandmother, Elizabeth is Missing gives a sensitive insight into the memory loss, frustration and confusion of dementia and of its impact on the sufferer and their close family.
Elizabeth is Missing gets off to a strong start. Maud, the 80-something protagonist, finds half a powder compact in her neighbour Elizabeth’s garden. Maud is convinced that Elizabeth is missing but no one believes her.
The compact in the garden triggers Maud’s memories of her sister, Sukey, who disappeared after the war in 1946 and was never found. At the time, Maud and her parents tried to discover what had happened to Sukey. Many people disappeared in the aftermath of the war and that made their search more difficult. Ultimately they were unsuccessful.
Maud’s memory of Sukey’s disappearance is detailed and complete. But while she can recall the past with accuracy, her ability to deal with the present has deteriorated. She is very vague about Elizabeth except that she is convinced something has happened to her. Elizabeth and Sukey’s disappearances become jumbled in Maud’s mind but she is relentless in her pursuit and, gradually, she makes a breakthrough.
Maud is an unreliable but sympathetic narrator. She is forgetful, she repeats herself and she goes around in circles. But she is spirited, believable and likeable. And while it is easy to understand her daughter Helen’s frustration, the reader can’t help rooting for Maud.
As the novel progresses, the pace slows — perhaps intentionally mirroring Maud’s progress. Ultimately I found the denouement of Elizabeth and Sukey’s stories was not as strong as it might have been but Maud is an original and unforgettable character and Elizabeth is Missing is a tremendous debut for Emma Healey.
See also: The Night Guest