Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey does not miss the mark

Healey’s first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, has been hailed as “one of those semi-mythical beasts, the book you cannot put down” (Jonathan Coe) and “very good indeed” (Jojo Moyes). Winning the Costa First Novel Award 2014 and being a Sunday Times bestseller has made it one of those must-reads, garnering high expectations from many readers.

A sensitive story of two halves 

The novel is told by Maud, an eighty something year old with what can be assumed to be severe Alzheimer’s. Repetitions and stray bits of paper with reminders are scattered throughout the novel, allowing us to really understand the importance memory holds. Healey approaches the sensitive topic with ease, making it a touching and moving read as we remember what Maud was trying to do, even if she can’t.

She is determined to find out exactly what has happened to her friend Elizabeth who is, after some detective work, clearly not living at home anymore. Intertwined with this enigma is the mystery of seventy years ago, when Maud’s sister, Sukey, went missing. Effortlessly slipping between the two stories, one set in the present day and the other in post-war Britain, we learn more about Maud’s past which allows for us to make sense of the memories she can’t seem to shake in the present. There is a connecting thread between the two tales, and they satisfyingly link as we reach the answer to both mysteries. 

Across genres

Though constructing a narrator with Alzheimer’s can be no easy task, requiring an exploration which will undoubtedly be heartbreaking at times, Healey has managed to incorporate dark humour and intrigue. She spans across the genres of mystery and crime whilst also including subtle comedy, memorable characters and different periods of time.

This variety has not only made the novel so popular, with the TV rights already having been sold, but makes it more than just a poignant read. It becomes much more readable, counteracting what can sometimes be a fearful look to the future peppered with exasperating repetition, with a very real picture of Maud’s life. 

A divisive narrative 

The very core of the novel, though, is Maud’s inability to remember. She ends up buying more peach slices from the shop since she can’t remember what she went there for. From forgetting where she is going when halfway there, to wondering who her daughter is, the fickle nature of the brain could not be more present. It provides the scope for the mystery, for some much needed chords of humour and justifies the novels structure. 

Yet, it is this narrative which is both brilliant and frustrating. We are told quite a way towards the end of the novel that Maud has in fact been told the answer to the Elizabeth mystery, but couldn’t remember it in order to tell us. The clues she gathers are forgotten by her, but not by us. It means we can piece together what we think, but what I wanted more than anything was for Maud to feel the same satisfaction. The skipping between the two stories was also effective, though sometimes I was desperate to stick with one to see how it panned out.

No doubt effective in relaying the irritation of forgetting, meaning a real understanding of what life was like for Maud, it could become an annoying style of narrative for a longer novel. Despite this, there is no way to deny the need for such a way to tell a story so contingent upon mystery, without which it would not have been half as insightful into the disease of Alzheimer’s, or half as touching. 

Buy Elizabeth is Missing in print or Audio here.