“It’s nine forty now, try not to eat it till twelve, right?”
Less than a page later:
“The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the Saran Wrap off.”
Two sentences later:
“When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the sitting room.”
With her love of toast and cans of peaches, one would think that the narrator of Elizabeth is Missing, eighty-two year old Maud, would be a relatable character – and although her dementia progresses with each page, this sentiment holds true. Maud presents as a sincere and unreliable narrator – a unique combination. The reminders she carries around in her pockets may not lead her in the right direction, but she is never unwilling or false with the reader and takes them by the hand through whichever path her mind may wander. Maud is vulnerable in the way many people fear – requiring a great amount of assistance from her daughter in the attempt at continuing a normal life despite her continually growing gaps in memory.
Emma Healey, while far from the age of eighty-two, drew upon her own experiences with those who have dementia in her writing of this novel. In an interview with the BBC, Healey stated that she had wanted to do something in the realm of dementia for some time, as a number of her family live with it, but wasn’t quite sure what. One day in the car, when her father’s mother said to her that “[her] friend is missing, it was then when [Healey] knew where [she] could take the story”.
Healey takes the reader like one would take a firm biscuit, and delicately submerses them into two murky teacups of Maud’s life – one set in the present in which her friend Elizabeth is missing, and the other in Maud’s adolescence in which her sister Sukey suddenly disappears in the aftermath of World War I. Maud’s search for Elizabeth constantly ties into her past searches for her sister, much like when those with dementia focus on an obsession or passion from their past.
Though the reader may get frustrated with Maud and mirror the exasperated sighs of her daughter Helen, the repetition and backtracking of Maud’s thoughts are truthful in their core – a direct representation of life with dementia and the isolation that follows close behind it when no one, not even yourself, can understand you. Healey’s realistic descriptions and scenarios are pleasantly unexpected from a young author. You cannot help but eventually see the numerous cold cups of tea that Maud leaves on the bookshelf as endearing and, at times, humorous. However, she also highlights the darker side of dementia: forgetting where you live, not realizing that you have a sprained wrist, and the moment in which you realize that something is wrong with you:
“If I look away, will I forget who she is?”
However muddled Maud may appear in her present-day activities, the re-telling of her past is equally as clear and detailed. The constant between these two settings is the beautiful language of descriptive imagery Healey uses to make a woman with dementia and the world of post-WWI understandable to modern readers. As the stories develop alongside one another, it is apparent that they intertwine in spite of the decades passed. The Maud that endlessly hunts for clues that may hint at her sister’s predicament is a determined and strong observer, finding the sparse biscuit crumbs of Sukey’s last public movements. She undertakes her parents’ failing marriage as well as the mood swings of Sukey’s husband, Fred – the main suspect of Sukey’s disappearance.
Fred is a character with which the reader wrestles at first. He is described to be of a lower socio-economic standing than Sukey, and although he is somehow able to secure sugar and meat for the family during times of rations, he does not seem trustworthy or very likeable. After Sukey’s disappearance, the reader watches as he falls in disarray, conducting his own hunt and projecting his feelings for Sukey onto Maud who is aging into recognizable features that her sister was known for.
Whether her knock on the door leads to gossip from a neighbor about yells down the street or a conversation about why she is there in the first place, Maud shows the reader a perspective not usually publicized – and the novel is all the more interesting for it.
Emma Healey grew up in London where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together but not how to write them). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel. Find out more at her website.