In brief: Maud is an old lady, and she’s forgetting things – a lot. But she knows that her friend Elizabeth is missing, just like her sister Sukey went missing after the war.
The good: The dual timelines and the way they come together are very well done.
The not-so-good: Maud’s lack of memory can be frustrating, as can her family’s blindness to it.
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
My rating: 8 out of 10
I tend to steer away from books about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as they hit a bit close to home for me. This is the reason I didn’t pick up this book last year and I haven’t seen/read Still Alice. Plus, I suppose I’m a bit cynical as to whether these kinds of books are a realistic portrayal of the disease. But, as Elizabeth is Missing is on the Baileys longlist and it was available at the library, I decided to give it a whirl. I thought the book was excellent for a debut. Emma Healey is obviously a skilled writer and her technical details are great. I also found this book a bit uncomfortable to read, as it brought up the feelings of frustration and then guilt at being frustrated that can be attached to looking after someone with a declining memory.
Elizabeth is Missing takes the unusual choice of having Maud as a first person narrator. This gets increasingly difficult, as Maud has dementia which gets worse – quite rapidly – as the book progresses. It was a brave thing to do, having Maud tell the story but it works. Initially, Maud seems to be just a bit forgetful. She lives at home alone and her carer admonishes her for repeatedly cooking toast (and scares her, telling her about old ladies that get mugged when they go out – I would NOT be amused if Maud was my grandmother). Her daughter Helen and granddaughter Katy regularly drop in and help out. But Maud has a problem – her friend Elizabeth is missing. She’s not at home and her son has moved things out of the house. She’s told the police many times, but nobody is interested. At the same time, Maud is retreating back into her memories post-World War II and her sister’s unsolved disappearance. Sukey disappeared one night and was never seen again. But does Maud know more than she remembers? The finale is edge of your seat stuff (although it does require a bit of a leap of faith) as the past and present are tied together. It’s also quite sad, as Maud becomes increasingly confused, not recognising either Katy or Helen.
Elizabeth is Missing brought out several questions and annoyances at the way other characters acted towards Maud. I really wonder if Helen truly couldn’t see the extent of Maud’s issues or if she just ignored it. If you have to tell your mum what the kettle is and forbid her using the stove, should she be living alone? The trip to the GP where the Mini Mental State Exam was done (and clearly showed cognitive impairment) – why was it not followed up with an increase in home services/help or referral to a care home? Helen seemed like an intelligent character, why didn’t she actively seek help for Maud? Peter, Elizabeth’s son, was a rude and uncaring man – surely he could see that Maud had memory problems, from the way she fixated on Elizabeth? These people made me angry in their reactions to Maud and their reluctance to help. But perhaps this is a good representation of the way society in general works.
Maud’s dementia was done incredibly well. From the word finding issues, to the living in the past and fixating on particular things – it was so good it was creepy. Getting into the head of someone with dementia was like a rambling vine – you never knew what tangent she’d be on next (and how quickly the previous one was forgotten). I thought the addition of the irritability and aggression as the disease progressed was also realistic. I felt really sorry for Maud, but sometimes I got frustrated when she stopped doing something, got side-tracked and then couldn’t remember why/when/how she’d done the previous thing. I think it’s a good replication of how working with people with memory problems can be – it can be frustrating, but also fascinating. I loved Maud’s dips into the past (so detailed in comparison to her present day dialogue).
While this wasn’t an easy read for me, Elizabeth is Missing is technically brilliant and a fascinating look into dementia, particularly if you don’t have experience with it.