Author: Emma Healey
Published: June 2014
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.
But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth’s mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.
This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud’s rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II.
As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth?
Maud is an elderly soul who is determined that her best friend Elizabeth is missing and must find her. No one listens though. Not the police officer she has spoken to four times, not her daughter Helen, nor Elizabeth's own son Peter. Her friend's house is empty; the furniture gone. The notes in Maud's pocket remind her. Elizabeth is missing. Maud must solve the mystery of her disappearance.
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Elizabeth is Missing is a story of relationships. Maud, the senior with memory lapses; her daughter Helen, who has the patience of a saint (but you can see it wears her thin sometimes), assisting her mother on a daily basis while she also works and raises her daughter, Katy who is coy, a bit rebellious but empathetic. I quite enjoyed the dialogues Maud had with her granddaughter who didn't seem fazed by the sometimes perplexing situations her grandmother got into. The British wit and sense of humour are evident in the dialogues between these two.
Allow me to set the scene. It is pouring rain and Maud, who has "escaped," is soaked to the skin. Her granddaughter sees her on the street, wraps her jacket over her Maud's shoulders and ushers her into a cafe to get warm.
"It's such a shame, Katy," I say."I know Grandma. I know."She's humouring me. A wet lump of tissues folds into itself on the table. It looks like that Plasticine stuff the children used to play with."I can't get hold of Mum," Katy says, holding something to the side of her face. "She's probably on the phone to the police or something.""What's that you've got against your ear? A shell? Who is it you're listening to?" I say. Douglas had a shell, I remember. I watched him discover it in Sukey's case: he felt all around the edges and found it in the lining. And then he held it to his ear and her voice came out and she told him how she'd met the man she was going to marry."Handy," Katy says. "But this is just a phone. I'm afraid. And at the moment I'm listening to a woman telling me the number I have dialled is busy. Never mind. We'll go home in a minute. After you've drunk your coffee.""Coffee is good for the memory," I say. She smiles and sits back. I think of telling her that I've forgotten why we're here. But she looks so happy...."
Helen is too close to the drama with her mother but Katy finds the humour in it.
"Do you know, " I ask...."where is the best place to plant marrows?"There's a grin and a shrug. "I don't know, you'd have to ask Mum. Though probably you shouldn't. That question winds her up like crazy. It's almost better than asking where Elizabeth is." She gives a squeal of delight at the thought and helps me to sit down for a minute. We don't have to wait long for the bus and Helen, or whoever she is, finds my pass quite easily in my bag.
Through seemingly insignificant situations, Maud's memories of the past are revealed. A can of peaches reminds her of her mother and we are privy to glimpses of Maud's youth in post-war Britain. Maud fixates on things, like melons, where is the best place to plant melons? Toast, she would like toast and tea though she had some earlier, she doesn't remember. Elizabeth is missing. Seemingly random threads of thought string together. One thought can trigger a memory.
The reader can envision the mystery surrounding Sukie, Maud's sister, who disappeared one day; never to be heard from again. While Maud goes about her day, items and conversations bring back memories as seamlessly as a poem and she remembers the past, focusing on the disappearance of her sister. Possible suspicions are played out as Maud remembers Sukie's husband Frank, the family's lodger Douglas, and a serial killer who now resides in jail. Elizabeth's disappearance prompts memories of Maud's sister's years before.
For such a young author to grasp and portray the dynamics of a family of three women, an elderly woman with declining memory, her daughter who visits daily and assists the carer with her needs, and the granddaughter who at 15 or so, displays great empathy while keeping a sense of humour; is just amazing. Emma Healey is able to portray all three as distinct individuals at different points in their lives; keeping them authentic in their respective roles while telling the story all from the perspective of an aging woman.
Elizabeth is Missing is ideal for a book club discussion. The story between the lines that is picked up bit by bit, clues skillfully hidden for later reveal; all excellent discussion points, as a co-worker and I have discovered while sharing our thoughts over this debut novel that has everyone talking. I borrowed my copy but I want to purchase one now so I can re-read it. This is a tale not soon to be forgotten, nor would I want to forget it.
Who would I recommend Elizabeth is Missing to? Healthcare workers, book clubs, women (young and mature alike), people caring for those with declining memory, caregivers of the elderly, mystery lovers, readers of fiction with substance. Emma Healey's novel has wide appeal.
Emma Healey grew up in London where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together but not how to write them). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel.
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