According to Viv Groskop, a writer for The Guardian, nine publishers bid for Emma Healey’s debut novel…it sounds like a scenario that young writers can only imagine in their fevered dreams. So why is Elizabeth Is Missing so appealing? I really liked this book as it is combines elements of mystery, literary fiction, and even slight traces of horror. The main character and narrator, Maud, appears to be suffering from dementia, and must deal with the resulting frustration and confusion. She must also must contend with people’s lack of understanding and patience. The reader is enlisted as a detective to try to comprehend what Maud is describing, as the proper term inevitably escapes her. The carer’s fur coat is described by Maud as “an animal for wearing outside, lying over the arm of the sofa.” Maud, of course, is an unreliable narrator as her view of reality is twisted and that makes her the most interesting kind of narrator: one that cannot be trusted. Despite obstacles, Maud is a very appealing character as she still has spunk, wit, and a stubborn streak. Her justification for buying herself an endless supply of peach tins: “It’s not like I have many treats left.” It’s hard to argue when confronted with that comment! I sympathized with Maud because the author allowed me to explore the world through her clouded mind. It is rare that a reader is given such a unique opportunity to see what dementia feels like from the inside.
The book’s underlying mysteries tie together Maud’s past and present, and piqued my interest. Maud’s friend Elizabeth appears to be missing and her son is acting suspiciously. Why does no one around her seem to care, even the local police? The clues that Maud discovers regarding Elizabeth, become tangled with memories of another disappearance that affected Maud in the past: the loss of her sister Sukey (who vanished shortly after World War II). Maud’s post-war memories are fascinating, and occasionally creepy, and led me to a growing list of possible suspects including a madwoman, a temperamental husband, and a moody tenant.
I recently hosted the Guelph Public Library’s summer book club at a local restaurant and Elizabeth Is Missing was the subject of our discussion. Although some people found the book difficult to read on an emotional level, the book led to a wonderful and very engaging discussion about the book’s style, the difficulty of caring for individuals with dementia, life in postwar Britain, the dual mysteries, and personal experiences dealing with fragmented minds. Elizabeth Is Missing is available as a book club set to anyone with a Guelph Public Library card.
If you enjoy this book, I would recommend:
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
In Lisa Genova’s extraordinary New York Times bestselling novel, an accomplished woman slowly loses her thoughts and memories to Alzheimer’s disease-only to discover that each day brings a new way of living and loving. Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. In turns heartbreaking, inspiring, and terrifying, Still Alice captures in remarkable detail what it’s like to literally lose your mind… Reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind , Ordinary People, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Still Alice packs a powerful emotional punch and marks the arrival of a strong new voice in fiction. – Publisher’s summary
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson
An amnesiac attempts to reconstruct her past by keeping a journal and discovers the dangerous inconsistencies in the stories of her husband and her secret doctor. – Publisher’s summary
Away From Her (a wonderful Canadian movie starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, and directed by Sarah Polley)
Fiona and Grant are an Ontario couple who have been married for over 40 years. During the twilight of their years, Grant is forced to face the fact that Fiona’s ‘forgetfulness’ actually is Alzheimer’s. After Fiona wanders away and is found, the decision is made for her to go into a nursing home. For the first time in their relationship, they are forced to undergo a separation since this nursing home has a ‘no-vistors,’ first 30 days policy of a patient’s stay. When Grant visits Fiona after the orientation period, he is devastated to find out that not only has she seemingly forgotten him, but she has transferred her affections to another man. As the distance between husband and wife grows, Grant must draw upon his love for Fiona to perform an act of self-sacrifice in order to ensure her happiness. – Publisher’s summary