I bought a copy of Elizabeth is Missing in the 3 Paperbacks for £10 deal on Amazon. I bought it purely because I liked the look of the cover; I knew nothing about it… but I’m so glad I did!
This is the story of Maud, and told in the first person from her perspective. Dementia is not really mentioned, but you quickly realise that must be what’s going on with her. She is very forgetful and this gets worse as the book goes along. She leaves notes for herself everywhere, so that she can try and keep track of things she needs to know; her handbag and pockets are full of notes, but she can never remember which ones are still relevant. It is through these notes that she reminds herself that her friend Elizabeth is missing. It’s infuriating for her though, because every time she tells someone that Elizabeth is missing – even the police – she is either ignored, laughed at, or told not to be so silly. Maud is doing her best to keep remembering that Elizabeth is missing, and to find out what has happened to her.
Alongside the present-day story, Maud is remembering part of her childhood. Her older sister disappeared shortly after the end of the Second World War, and nobody ever knew what became of her. Maud is mentally retracing her steps in the months after her sister’s disappearance, trying to figure out what might have happened, like a detective going over an old case. She remembers conversations with her parents, with their lodger Douglas, who seemed to have been spending more time with her sister than anyone realised, and is keeping a secret of some sort, and with her brother in law Frank, who disappeared at the same time as her sister, but then reappeared a few weeks later.
This story is absolutely heartbreaking. Towards the end of the book Maud is very confused, and concentrating so hard on what was happening in the 1940s, she is confused as to the identities of the people she is faced with in the present day. Having written a post last week about being a dementia friend, I found it sad to read in this book about how people treat Maud. People saying “you don’t remember me… don’t worry, you never do” or a police man laughing because she’s come in again to report her friend missing. It’s sad but I think a lot of people with dementia are laughed at or disregarded as just being a bit dotty. I love that the outcome of this book has Maud proving she was right about certain obsessions she had (I am being deliberately vague as I don’t want to give anything away). It kind of feels like a point for dementia sufferers who aren’t just talking jibberish and want their voice to be heard, even if they can’t remember everything.
Because Maud has dementia, and the story is told entirely from her perspective, we don’t know any more about what has happened to Elizabeth than Maud is able to remember. The book gives a real insight into what it must be like to be living with dementia, both as the sufferer and their family. So many times in the book, Maud loses the thread of a conversation while it’s still in progress, and looks down at her notes to find things she’s obviously (to the reader) just written, but doesn’t know what they are in relation to.
As well as being a cracking mystery, the book deals with the problems faced by the family of someone with dementia. Maud still lives in her own home, with a carer and her daughter visiting regularly. There is a note above the cooker telling her not to cook anything, but she’s not sure why, and surely eggs won’t hurt, will they? Eggs aren’t even proper cooking… She has to be locked into the house at night otherwise she wanders off, and often loses track of whether it’s day or night so makes phone calls at inappropriate times. It’s sad to think the question of what to do about this must face so many families. Maud says several times in the book, I’m not an idiot just a bit forgetful. Although no part of the book is told from her daughter’s perspective, it shows what a horrible dilemma she faces, and also the tension she’s under when her mother has asked her the same question every day, or told her Elizabeth is missing several times a day, seemingly for months.
I found this book so hard to put down, that towards the end of it I was wandering into the kitchen to get a snack while still holding it in front of my face. The two different stories are woven together so perfectly, and the ending is something I certainly could not have guessed at – though, as with all good mysteries, the clues are there when you look back. The ending of this book is so perfect, so fitting, it’s hard to imagine any way it could have been improved. In fact, every little thing in this book seems to have been so perfectly crafted as to fit together like a million-piece jigsaw. Every throw-away comment seems to have been a clue as to what was coming.
The Daily Telegraph said this book was Memento as written by Alan Bennett, and I think that’s a perfect description. Maud is trying desperately to get to the end of this story, but keeps losing the thread of it in her mind. She knows there’s something she has to remember, but isn’t sure what, so she delves into her pocket for a handful of scraps of paper with notes. Which ones are from today, though? Are they all still relevant?
I was frankly astounded to find that this was Emma Healey’s debut novel. It won the Costa First Novel Award last year – deservedly so, in my opinion. And she’s only 29 as well. What a career this woman certainly has ahead of her; I can’t wait to read her next book!
Thanks for reading.
Thank you for reading!
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