What a novel. Elizabeth is Missing is the debut novel by Emma Healey, broken by Penguin General in 2014 to rave reviews, incredible debut sales and went on to win The Costa Book First Novel Award . I myself swallowed it in half a day and couldn’t read it fast enough.
Simplistically, it tells of Maud, a charming old lady suffering from dementia who can’t remember buying food, never mind where her friend Elizabeth is. As her dementia worsens, so too does her determination to discover what happened to dear Elizabeth and even more dramatically what happened to her sister Sukey when she mysteriously disappeared after the Second World War.
Having a narrator who can’t remember her own daughter’s name sometimes adds a depth unexamined in previous literature. Not only is the narrator unreliable and questionable, one can never guarantee exactly what is happening in the novel.
The novel comes alive with Maud, her characterisation and Healey’s flair for language. The beautiful way in which she constructs Maud’s past and interweaves it with her disjointed present allows you to really feel for Maud and her snatching attempts to grasp at something to answer her questions.
Whilst she fails to obtain more answers, the reader begins to have more questions. I thought I had guessed the ending about three quarters of the way through the book, but unfortunately, I found that by the time the ending had come around, I actually preferred the one I had invented in my own head.
Perhaps this novel is an example of exactly that: the life and stories in our heads are more interesting and more obtainable than those in real life. Is Elizabeth really missing? Or is Maud just missing some marbles?
I found it an incredibly satisfying read and rather refreshing from the usual crime thriller. Healey’s unreliable narrator is comparable to another unreliable narrator of another novel I read on holiday, The Girl on the Train. Though Rachel in the latter is a drunk forgetful, whilst Maud is merely forgetful, both delay the progression of the novel by forcing the reader to ask questions of the narrator, rather than just the story.
Despite my misgivings about the ending, I was wonderfully impressed by Healey’s narrative and her skills as an author. The book was funny, warm, heartbreaking at times, and had an element of old Hollywood drama in the flashbacks to the past, which I thought were beautifully constructed.
Maud is a refreshing voice in the canon and as I said, not often do we get a narrative from an elderly lady, especially one who can’t even remember her own daughter at times.
I would indeed recommend the novel, though do take it with a pinch of salt. It’s a fabulous debut from an author with much promise, and if you are disappointed by the end as I was, remember the beauty of the middle. The construction is an art in itself.