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Friday, 25 July 2014

Summer Watch and Read: Elizabeth is Missing

How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?

A couple of years ago, Duchess mentioned to me that someone she knew was writing a novel—as she’d been asked to help with the research. We were all very excited about it but it sort of faded into the back of everyone’s minds until earlier this year when it was published… and it’s now set to be hugely successful!
That someone was Emma Healey, just 29, and that book is now the acclaimed Elizabeth is Missing.

“Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shop and forgets why she went. Back home she finds the place horribly unrecognisable—just like she sometimes thinks her daughter Helen is a total stranger. But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it. Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about. Everyone, except Maud…”

I had some reservations about reviewing this, since I will probably end up meeting the author at some point—it would be rather embarrassing if I had something bad to say about it!

I needn’t have worried.

The book was another one of my three day love affairs. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I can see myself dipping into it many more times throughout my life.

I received a signed copy from Tiger and Duchess for my birthday with a thoughtful message from Emma herself (thanks!).

“Elizabeth is Missing” is essentially two stories in one book. The main story follows Maud, an elderly woman with dementia. However, there is also a series of flashbacks to Maud’s childhood as she simultaneously tries to solve two mysteries: The disappearance of her friend Elizabeth in the present day, and the disappearance of her older sister Sukey seventy years before.

I felt that as a teenager, I would find Maud’s character hard to relate to, but it was actually fairly natural. The vivid description of both Maud’s feelings and the way she was treated was easy to empathise with. Think of all those times you were a child and nobody listened to you or took you seriously! And we’ve all experienced memory loss in one way or another. Now, where was I?

The story was so scattered, confused and repetitive that it really did put me in the shoes of this poor old woman. I became so involved with Maud’s thoughts that when she forgot something, I did too. A pretty spooky experience!

The story that takes place in the past was from the point of view of Maud as a young girl—completely compos mentis—and was of huge benefit to the book as it had a very clear plotline I could follow from beginning to end, rather than spending all my time trying to pick up and weave together the loose threads of the main plot.

For me, the characters are the most important part of a story, and in “Elizabeth is Missing” they were described so clearly and so well that I could see them in front of me. We’re all told to “show not tell” and this was clearly followed to a T. I fell in love with Maud right away and she was so endeared to me that I wanted to shout out on her behalf when she wasn’t being listened to, or put my arm around her and give her a squeeze when she was confused, lost and upset.

Such vivid characters made the story all the more real to me, and such sympathy urged me on toward the end.

It was fascinating to learn how the mind makes connections. Every time Maud goes to the shop, all she can remember to buy are tinned peaches, until her cupboards at home are completely full of them. We later learn that they link back to her past. In the same way, she focuses on tiny objects and collects seemingly nonsensical items that all have meaning to her life in some way. This made the book a learning curve about dementia for me… but again, we all have small items with huge significance in our lives.

At the end of the book (no spoilers!), I felt I had an idea of what might have happened to Elizabeth. This, far from making things predictable, actually added to the story as I could tell why Maud was so confused and why those around her were so frustrated. Being a few minutes ahead of her really emphasised the way her thoughts dragged through treacle, struggling to keep up with the present while stuck so firmly in the past.

This is such a new concept—to me, anyway—that I’m afraid I can’t really do the “If you like x, you’ll love this”, but to be honest I recommend it to everyone.

If you know someone who has suffered from dementia, you should read this book.

If you have parents and grandparents, you should read this book.

If you’ve ever lost someone, you should read this book.

If you ever feel lost, or frustrated, or like nobody is listening to you, you should read this book.

I really loved it, and I hope you do too.

(PS... I gather this one is being made into a TV series, too. Hurrah!)  


  1. this sounds good. reminds me of Jo Walton's My Real Children.

    1. It is! Thanks for that title, I might have a look at it. Lovely to hear from you Pam :) xxx


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