Review of Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

When you suffer dementia you travel into a strange land from which there is no return. The first signs you’re over the border are more annoying than frightening. Someone seems to be hiding your personal effects. Then they’ve rearranged the furniture in your room or redesigned your entire house so that doors won’t open or if they do then alarms go off & people you’ve never met before seem annoyed @ something that you have no recall that you did. Even when they’re standing right in front of you they talk about you as if you weren’t there, or ask you childish questions like what year it is & you can’t remember what the right word is for whatever thing you’re trying to talk about. That’s just starters.
If you’ve been a caregiver, either @ an agency or a facility, or @ home as the PCG for someone you love, you’ll find the voice of Maud in Elizabeth Is Missing reminding you of what it is like to look after someone with dementia. When the story begins Maud is only mildly disabled. She is alert & oriented – knows who she is, where she is, & recognises her daughter Helen & her granddaughter Katie. But Maud’s short term memory is absolutely shot to pieces & she cannot remember anything that she does or is told, so that if she tries to boil a kettle for tea she’ll forget all about it & leave it on the stove. Maud is obsessed by the belief that her best friend of many years, Elizabeth, has disappeared from her house & suspects that she may have met with foul play from her son Peter, who seems to continually annoyed @ Maud. Because she cannot remember anything recent, Maud surrounds herself with slips on notepaper inscribed “Elizabeth is missing’, which give the book its title.
Because of Emma Healey’s brilliant use of a first person narration, it takes the reader quite a while to distinguish Maud’s version of events from ‘reality’ & understand why Helen, Peter, the police & Maud’s GP all find dealing with Maud so difficult & to find out what has ‘really’ occurred. I put ‘reality’ in scare commas because that is merely what we call it. We have to remember that dementia patients are no longer in our world, & that if we want to be with them, we have to go into their world & sometimes, as in this novel, there are some fascinating glimpses of a lost world, here in 1946.
The partitions between past & present often become very thin, as is true for Maud. She is also very much a little girl in postwar Britain & preoccupied with another disappearance, that of her older sister Susan, called Sukey, She is married to Frank, who is what was then termed a ‘wide-boy’ – a petty criminal who deals in black-market ration coupons & stolen military stores. Maud & Sukey’s parents also have a lodger, Douglas, who affects an American accent & is awfully vague about how he spends his spare time.
So Emma Healey gives us in Maud a seriously impaired detective describing trying to solve two mysteries almost 70 years apart. Because the first-person narration is instantaneous, Maud can tell us things that two pages later she won’t remember herself. But there is a lot of DIY for us readers in figuring out what’s supposed ‘really’ to have happened. Unreliable narrators fascinate me & this is one of the very best I’ve encountered. I give this book five stars but I realise that I am much too close to the subject of this book, that I feel that Emma Healey really gets it. I’m sure there may be readers who think they’ll find out more about dementia than they ever wanted to know. Of course if you follow the health statistical projections, you’ll see that if you live long enough you surely will find out more about dementia than you ever wanted to know, either as a caregiver or a patient. Elizabeth Is Missing is a good & painless place to start.

3 thoughts on “Review of Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

  1. This is one of the books on my list. It sounds a bit like Before I Go To Sleep but with an older MC. I volunteered at a dementia care home when I was 14 and it was a pretty scary experience. It was sad seeing people so disorientated and lonely.

    Nice review. Sounds like a fascinating book.

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    1. Only like Before I Go to Sleep in that both deal with bad memories. The kind of short term memory failure in Elizabeth Is Missing is common in dementia pts, as unfortunately is her dtr’s inability to grasp what’s happening. I thought this book an excellent picture of the earlier stages of dementia, where the pt is still mostly alert & oriented: she knows who she is, where she is, & mostly who everybody else is. She does not remember what happened to her friend recently but she recalls the distant past.

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