Elizabeth is Missing: Emma Healey

★★★★

This book had been sitting unread on my Kindle since August 2018, but I sought it out just before Christmas. I wanted to read it before watching the celebrated but very raw TV adaptation, with Glenda Jackson on splendid form in the lead role. Maud is an elderly woman, fiercely independent even though her world is becoming increasingly confusing. Her social life centres on visiting her best friend Elizabeth but, for some reason, Elizabeth doesn’t answer the door now when Maud goes to call. Where is she? Maud is determined to find out, and is baffled when her daughter Helen doesn’t seem to understand the urgency. As Maud turns detective, her mind begins to slip between past and present with ever-increasing frequency, for Elizabeth isn’t the only one who has disappeared. Maud’s present sense of loss echoes her distress when her elder sister Sukey disappeared back in the late 1940s, one mystery spilling into the next. But can any mystery be solved when you can’t even keep the days straight in your mind?

Maud knows she’s getting forgetful. There are notes stuck all around her house, some written by her – reminders to visit Elizabeth; things to do – and some written by her daughter Helen (these, in Maud’s opinion, tend to be passive aggressive on subjects like remembering to lock the door, or not buying any more tins of peaches). But one thing is clear to her. Elizabeth has gone missing. The route to her house is one of the few that Maud can still manage alone and so she heads out to discover what has happened to her friend. Yet the doors of Elizabeth’s house are still locked; the lights still off. Maud’s frustration must contain an element of loneliness: it seems likely that her friendship with Elizabeth was the only one in which she had the sense of being an equal. Her relationships with her daughter, her granddaughter and her carer seem increasingly to cast Maud in the role of a helpless child – a change she deeply resents. And so, despite Helen’s pleas not to worry about Elizabeth, Maud persists: she knows this is important and, even if everyone around her thinks she’s mad, she has to find out the truth.

Within elderly Maud there are still traces of the young Maud, who grew up in this same area with her parents and her glamorous, beloved older sister Sukey. Sukey is everything that Maud wants to be – until she vanishes. Her disappearance sends a shock-wave through the family, affecting each of them deeply: Maud’s parents; their lodger Douglas, who was so fond of Sukey; and of course Maud herself. No one knows what has happened to Sukey, not even her black-marketeer husband Frank, and as time goes on it looks as though the mystery will never be solved. But, as she grows older, Maud remembers the strange whispers of the mad woman who followed her younger self in the streets – baffling gibberish – and, little by little, these two disappearances begin to dovetail until Maud might, just might, have the answers that she needs. The answers, when they come, seem a little too neat to be believed, but that isn’t really the point of the book. The point, and Maud’s ultimate tragedy, is this: even if she has answers, will she remember them?

We have recent family experience of dementia and so this cut pretty close to home. The TV adaptation was actually gut-wrenching, because it showed all the stages we recognised – anger, wilfulness, occasional violence, confusion, and the tendency to ‘relive’ different time periods. Despite its punch, I recommend it as a completely unvarnished picture of what dementia does to the brain (and Glenda Jackson is fantastic). The book is a little softer, if only because we see it from Maud’s own point of view. She doesn’t realise the impact her dementia is having on those around her – except, perhaps, in that one horrible moment when she realises that she’s failed to recognise her own daughter. In general, though, her frustrations take simpler forms: compulsively buying tins of peaches, for example, or bristling when she thinks she’s being babied. I don’t suppose we can ever truly know what it’s like to have dementia until we get it for ourselves, but this novel must offer a pretty authentic view.

Healey gives Maud an appealing narrative voice: that of a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth woman, used to fending for herself and not without humour. The book’s pathos lies between the lines, in those things that Maud can’t articulate, but which we deduce from those around her. How can you chart the losing of a self? It’s an important novel, demystifying a disease from which so many of us will suffer in these days of longer life-spans, and resisting any move towards sentimentality. I haven’t read any interviews with Healey, but she must surely have had a close family member with dementia in order to depict it with such ruthless accuracy. You know that, if Maud was your own grandmother or a neighbour, you’d probably think of her as a difficult old bat and yet, ironically, that’s precisely the quality which makes her the ideal companion on her journey of discovery. Moving; funny; sometimes unutterably sad.

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