Elizabeth is Missing is a stunning debut novel by Emma Healey, which asks an interesting question: How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?
Eighty-something year old Maud is not sure of many things – she easily loses track of time, places and objects, and more often than not finds herself bewildered as to what she did or said just a few minutes ago. Looked after by her stoic daughter, Helen, as well as a couple of “carers”, Maud tries to jog her memory by writing copious little notes to herself, which she stashes in her pockets and purses, and which – in the absence of large chunks of her memory – she consults in order to put together the missing pieces of her life.
Although Maud forgets a lot, the one thing she consistently remembers is the fact that somehow her good friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is not at her house, where Maud last remembers seeing her, and so Maud embarks on a long and painstaking process to try and find her missing friend.
The other thing that is also clear in Maud’s mind is the memory of the disappearance of her sister Sukey, back when Maud was a teenager in post World War Two England. Maud remembers the events leading up to Sukey’s disappearance, and the aftermath of it, as her family tries to find the truth of what has happened to Sukey.
This “story within a story” device is handled brilliantly by the author, who – although a first-time novelist – has managed to create characters and a plot line which are authentic and truly resonate with the reader. The depiction of Maud as she slowly escalates from being somewhat forgetful or senile, to being in the throes of full-blown dementia is simply superb. The story is told in first person from Maud’s point of view, allowing the reader to really experience the fear, rage and helplessness felt by Maud as her memory becomes an increasingly bigger hole, while at the same time remembering that there is a real sense of urgency to her recollection that something terrible has happened to someone she loves.
The metaphor of “being lost” shifts poignantly between the characters of Elizabeth, Sukey and Maud herself, and drives the narrative ahead to its inevitable and spine-tingling conclusion. Emma Healey’s novel is one that you will want to keep reading, as the characters of Maud and her daughter Helen slowly but surely come to occupy a niche in your heart. If that is the definition of a “page turner” then Elizabeth is Missing is indeed such a thing.