Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey: Book Review

Dementia is an evil illness, cruelly snatching its victim’s short term memory and causing events happening in their present to jumble up with memories from their past. Emma Healey’s first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, tells the story of dementia sufferer Maud and details how she experiences day-to-day life suffering from the disease. Maud keeps a paper memory to try and help her remember things. Post-it notes fill her pockets telling her “no more toast”, “do not leave the house”, “don’t buy anymore peaches” and, crucially, that her friend Elizabeth “is missing” and that she must find out where she is.

Maud has a poor short-term memory, which gradually deteriorates throughout the course of the book, but she can clearly recall the events of her childhood. In this novel there are two interwoven storylines and thus two mysteries for Maud to solve. With dementia sufferers, the recurrence of an event in the present dredges up a repetition of behavioural patterns based on their previous experiences. For Maud, the mystery of where Elizabeth has vanished to brings back memories of when her sister Sukey disappeared. The events of Maud’s today get jumbled up into the events of the past and in the confusion she tells the interwoven narratives from the first person perspective. In so doing, at the end of the book we finally find out exactly where Elizabeth is and, also, what happened to Sukey.

As Maud’s condition gets worse and worse throughout the book, the story gets darker and darker. Maud starts to no longer recognise her daughter or her granddaughter and starts to take violent turns when she suffers from a memory lapse. At the beginning of the book she lives by herself but by the end is living with the daughter which causes a significant amount of confusion, leading to more post-its giving her directions around the house. Care for the elderly is a current social problem, with discussions in the media over who should take responsibility; the state or the family?

Interestingly, Maud’s daughter gets easily aggravated by her mother’s behaviour, taking deep breaths of irritation when Maud asks where Elizabeth is or where is the best place to grow marrows. This is in contrast to her granddaughter that almost indulges Maud’s memory lapses and patiently takes care of her when she gets lost in town. I imagine that this is not uncommon in family units because the degree of separation between the generations may ensure a greater ease with which to deal with dementia sufferers.

This is Healey’s first novel and she has succeeded in realistically describing what happens to a family unit when a member suffers from a debilitating illness. Her greatest achievement with this novel is putting the issue of dementia and its affects, not just on the sufferer but on her wider social circle, out into the public sphere. We need more books like this and more discussion of mental illness in popular culture so that more people are aware of its effects.

While Elizabeth is Missing is an interesting and thought-provoking novel, there are moments in the storyline that are quite and although I did finish the book with the satisfaction of enjoying the story, it did fail to grip me entirely; so much so that I was able to read another book in between this one, leaving it for a week but easily picking up where I left off without having to refresh my memory. However, Healey has proven herself to be a good writer of current social problems and I do look forward to seeing what her next novel will be.


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