Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

EIM-pb-jacketHow do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?

Mystery turns to comedy when investigated through the perceptions of forgetful octogenarian, Maud Horsham. But Healey’s debut novel is more than that. Comic moments resulting from Maud’s forgetfulness are undercut by the tragic reality of Maud’s mental deterioration. Uncovering the true mystery of this novel and witnessing Maud’s increasing disorientation and vulnerability make Elizabeth is Missing a heart-warming and heart-breaking read.

When the truth is uncovered at the end of the novel (no spoilers!), a policeman asks Maud about the events leading up to the discovery. Her muddled, sometimes nonsensical answers made me wonder how the policeman would ever be able to understand. How ever could he grasp the way in which this forgetful old lady unravelled the mystery? It was then I realised how brilliant this book is.

I had enjoyed the narrative throughout, aware I was being led through it by one of the most unreliable of narrators. But despite Maud’s inability to recall important events and information, I pieced together the evidence for myself. I acquired everything the policeman was asking for.  All the clues were there. I was aware the seeds were being sown (or, rather, casually placed), but I didn’t know which seeds would grow – which bits of information would become meaningful later on. The way in which Healey draws these clues together is not simply satisfying; it is a subtle and graceful piece of craftsmanship.

Another product of Healey’s craftsmanship is the weaving in and out of two stories – the present day mystery of a missing Elizabeth and the 70-year-old mystery of a missing Sukey (Maud’s sister). Maud seems far more aware of the past than of the present. Things in the present, such as smells, words and objects, trigger memories and we are transported back to that moment in Maud’s teenage years. I often find flashbacks distracting or tiresome, but in Elizabeth is Missing, the passages between the two stories were smooth and unforced and I was as eager to hear the old story as the current one.

In a final bout of praise for Emma Healey (I really don’t have anything negative to say), I must mention her choice of voice. Healey is 30 (so the internet tells me) so she would have been in her twenties when putting herself in the shoes of an eighty-something year old lady. Perhaps I am not a suitable judge, being in my twenties too, but I never once doubted Maud’s authenticity as an elderly person.

I enjoyed the insight into old age. Healey seems very empathetic in her portrayal of Maud, but she also takes the opportunity to explore a new perspective of the world. Because Maud struggles with vocabulary and recognition, she gives very objective descriptions: acutely observed, unique and sometimes child-like. For instance, when Maud fails to recall the name for ‘a squat, splayed thing’ that a young boy places in her hand (a ‘fog’, or frog) or when she describes the sensation of plunging your hands into wet earth for no apparent reason, we experience her sense of unfamiliarity with the world.

In a word, this story is charming – tragic, but charming – and an absolute advocate for holding onto hope.