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On Memory, Family, and Voice

Elizabeth is Missing is a beautifully written book that touches on so many of the challenges that come with aging.

Elizabeth is Missing

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 320 pages
Author: Emma Healey
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06
“The woman doesn’t think that’s the answer and the man begins to explain something to me. But I can’t concentrate. I can see they won’t listen, won’t take me seriously. So I must do something. I must, because Elizabeth is missing.”

Emma Healey's debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, is a beautifully written book that touches on so many of the challenges that come with aging.

Elizabeth is Missing is narrated by Maud, an octogenarian with dementia. In current time, Maud is on a mission to find her friend Elizabeth, but no one pays attention to her oft repeated mantra “Elizabeth is missing”—not her daughter or her caretaker or the police.

Maud also takes us back to the '40s, when she was a young woman and when her sister Sukey disappeared. Here, we get to know Maud on another level, as a young person who is trying to find her place in a rapidly changing and often tragic world. Other intriguing characters from Maud’s past include a boarder that lives with her family, Sukey’s husband, and a seemingly mad woman who just wants to go home.

In the beginning, the story moves seamlessly between the past and present often with small things—a cup of tea, a visit to the police station, a familiar face, a banana sandwich, the desire to go home—nudging Maud from one time period to the other. Later, the past encroaches on the present and Maud seems to forget not only where she is and who people are, but what era it is, as well.

Maud’s dementia makes her an unreliable narrator, and she frequently has trouble with language. She’ll say things like “It’s the wrong name, I know it’s the wrong name, but I can’t think of the right one” or “I keep saying the word ‘trowel’ in my head; I have a feeling it will be important later.”

We also see the dementia worsening. Not only because the story begins with Maud living at home with caretakers coming and going, on and off throughout the day, and ends with Maud living with her daughter Helen, but also because as the story progresses, Maud remembers less and less—as evidenced when she tells her daughter that she [Maud] doesn’t like the woman who works at their home because she is always in a rush and cross, not realizing that “that woman” is her daughter.

While there is, as the title suggests, some mystery, the plot doesn’t seem like it’s meant to surprise or shock. For Maud at least, Elizabeth is missing; however, most readers will quickly realize that there are only a couple of possible explanations. And it’s almost odd that we/the readers don’t know earlier in the book what happened to Elizabeth. Readers often know more than Maud does; Maud can’t remember why she made a phone call, how she hurt her hand, or that she visited the police station.

In a strange way, though, Maud sometimes seems to know more than anyone else—she just can’t communicate her thoughts clearly. Things get, in her own words, "muddled". Other people, particularly her daughter Helen, have to put the pieces together for Maud, and it’s an interesting moment when Helen realizes that some of her mother’s ramblings aren’t really ramblings.

And this is where the magic of the story comes in. Elizabeth is Missing makes profound, eloquent, sometimes humorous but often sad statements, about memory, family, and voice. Healey manages to capture the thought process of an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia perfectly. Most likely many will see a parent, spouse, grandparent, great-grandparent (or perhaps even themselves) in Maud. Others may see some of themselves in Helen, who becomes her mother’s primary caretaker, or in Maud’s son who lives too far away to be of much help in the day to day matters—something Helen reminds him of when he does visit.

Intermixed with the disappearances of both Elizabeth and Sukey are the everyday things anyone with an aging friend or relative may have to deal with: Maud leaves the oven on, gets lost, and is always buying canned peaches even though her cupboard is full of them. There are different solutions—sticky notes with reminders, locked doors, labels, part time help—until the inevitable happens. Then many readers may wish for Katy, Helen’s daughter, who seems to handle Maud moving in with them with a great deal of grace and poise.

By the time the novel ends, the “mystery” with Elizabeth is solved—at least for the readers. The last line of the book makes clear that Maud doesn’t remember what happened to her friend Elizabeth; to Maud, Elizabeth will probably always be missing. It may not be a happy ending, but it’s a fitting one.


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