Elizabeth is Missing
by Emma Healey
American pastor and author Ben Reaoch recently wrote an article on the subject of spiritual amnesia saying that ‘the way the human memory works (and doesn’t work) is a mysterious thing.’ He describes how his grandmother died in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
Emma Healey’s novel, Elizabeth is Missing, was also inspired by her own grandmothers one of whom suffered from dementia. She approaches the subject through the character of the elderly Maud, who is self-confessedly ‘a bit forgetful’. Convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing she valiantly attempts to solve the mystery while simultaneously experiencing increasing memory malfunction.
Maud’s carer Carla, her daughter Helen, Elizabeth’s offensive son, Peter and even the police fail to take her concern seriously. Or so it seems to Maud. There never was a more unreliable narrator and yet one whose own internal dialogue is strangely eloquent. “My left side feels suddenly chilly where she was sitting against it. A current of cold water in a warm sea’. Details are minutely observed as are her lucid recollections of the past.
The disappearance of Maud’s sister Sukey when she was a girl after the war is a secondary, past tense narrative that is woven into the present tense story prompting Maud’s memory and giving her the clues she needs to continue in her search for her missing friend. The possibility that Sukey’s feckless husband Frank was responsible for Sukey’s death gives rise in Maud’s delicate mind to suspicions that Elizabeth herself has been done away with.
The author’s ability to enter sensitively and imaginatively into the frustrated observations of her heroine is impressively tender for a first time novelist who herself is only just in her 30’s. Healey is said to have been ‘really worried’ about trying to write from the point of view of someone in their 80’s. Opinions differ as to whether or not she has done this successfully. Either way, Maud’s voice is memorable.
Rather like James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers, Maud is an unlikely ‘amateur sleuth’ who, with delightful determination, keeps notes to help herself remember what the reader knows she will inevitably forget.
So where does this novel fit into a Christian worldview? The church receives rather poor press in the book as in much contemporary fiction. Maud’s reception at the church Elizabeth goes to lacks genuine warmth. She is welcomed with a smile but it’s an embarrassed one and even the vicar ‘coughs and shifts his feet’. She is treated with patronising platitudes and Maud, in frustration, is driven to smash her cup onto the stone floor.
Helen, Maud’s daughter is a challenging example of patience and sacrifice in the interests of an elderly parent and the perseverance of true friendship underlies the whole narrative structure. Living inside Maud’s head for 275 pages, the reader is bound to reflect on the gifts of memory and communication, too easily taken for granted.
After reading this book I felt a new sense of compassion for those in my own family with whom I might normally be impatient and where a book provides not only a gripping story but a lesson in living as well, it has more than done a good job.