Emma Healey won the 2014 Costa First Novel prize for Elizabeth Is Missing and was on assorted “best of” lists last December. The book follows Maud, an elderly woman with dementia. She is trying to figure out what happened to her friend, Elizabeth, who has seemingly vanished. But the catch is that she can’t remember anything – where she is, where she’s going, what question she has, whether Elizabeth is actually missing. In fact, Maud only knows that Elizabeth is missing when she finds a note to herself in her pocket.
What Maud does remember is the disappearance of her older sister in the 1940s. While her experience of the current day is chopped up into fragments, the reader gets a more vivid picture of the past.
This book was promoted as a “page turning novel of suspense.” I imagined it would be like Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. In that book, a woman forgets everything from the previous day, but the reader gets the sneaking suspicion that something sinister is going on. I thought that book was a fun, candy bar of a psychological thriller.
But somewhat early on, it becomes clear that Elizabeth Is Missing has been improperly billed. This is not a thriller, or even a mystery exactly. This is a story about what it’s like to lose your memory, to have no way to communicate your concerns or organize your questions or be taken seriously. It is also a novel about the way that memory gives meaning and continuity to family.
This is not a perfect book, but one masterful element is Healey’s portrayal of Helen, who is Maud’s adult daughter. Maud is the sole narrator of this story. Without shifting perspectives, Healey tells us what it’s like to be Maud’s main caregiver through small details. We get to see Helen's worry lines, witness her apologies to passersby, hear her sighs of exasperation. Maud might not fully understand her daughter's gestures, but the reader does.
My own mother has long remarked that there are few rich literary portrayals of older characters. I found Maud to be deeply compelling, but I don’t think a character like this would satisfy my mother’s interest. The fact that Maud is so deeply vulnerable (and resembles in uncomfortable ways a character from her past that is described as a “mad woman”) could potentially reaffirm stereotypes of elderly people. If you have good examples of strong older characters – particularly older female characters – please leave a comment! Here's a Huffington Post column with some suggestions.
(There is, apparently, a new “genre” of fiction called “Matron literature.” I’m not sure if this is a good thing. I’m wondering if there will be a special table at the bookstore that features “Hot New Titles For Matrons!”)