Monday, 6 March 2017

Elizabeth is Missing - book review

Elizabeth is Missing, first published in 2014, was the first novel by Emma Healey. It became a Sunday Times bestseller, and won the Costa First Novel award. The book earned much critical acclaim - not least from the late, great Ruth Rendell. Rendell said, "I've never read anything quite like it", and this was not a double-edged choice of phrase. It really is a terrific novel.

I suppose you'd call it a mainstream work of fiction, but it's also, arguably, a crime novel. It's a story told in the first person by Maud, an elderly woman who is suffering memory loss. Maud lives in her own house, but her forgetfulness is starting to become a real cause of concern to her daughter, who overcomes many frustrations and treats her mother, at least for the vast majority of the time, with a good deal of kindness. But we also see how challenging it can be to cope with a loved one who is ageing in this way. The patience of a saint is sometimes required, and very few of us are saints.

Maud has become concerned that her friend Elizabeth can't be found, but she can't get anyone to take her seriously. As she frets about Elizabeth's absence, her mind goes back to her youth, and the disappearance of her older sister. It seems that people suspected that her sister was murdered, and there is more than one possible culprit, but the mystery was never solved.

When I read this book, I didn't regard it first and foremost as a crime story. It's simply a great piece of writing about a wonderfully realised character and her life. At times I found it almost unbearably poignant. Suffice to say that it's one of the most impressive novels I've read in the past few years. I don't know how Emma Healey is going to surpass it, but I'll be fascinated to read her next book. She has tremendous talent.

5 comments:

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look forward to this one!

Tim Davis said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about _Elizabeth is Missing_. I am most intrigued by the idea of a narrator with memory loss. That must give an author some tough challenges.
Best wishes from an old blogger with a new blog:
http://informalinquiries.blogspot.com/

Christine said...

I too was very impressed. Poor Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator, something which is very hard to pull off. The novel is a triumph.

Anonymous said...

Hi Martin, I agree, this is a great book - one of the best I read in 2015, and I recommended it to anyone who would listen :) I look after a relative (who is very much like Maud)so that added an extra dimension to the mystery.

However, some family and friends found the Alzheimers/Dementia aspect a little distressing - to the point of not being able to finish the book, so it may not be for everyone.

Sappho said...

I feel the same way about this fine novel! I persuaded my book club (composed almost entirely of older women here in Texas) to read it, and then had qualms that they would either be sidetracked by the dementia issues or feel they had little in common with this elderly British woman and her reminiscences. I needn't have worried -- Maud is universally appealing. Nobody was as interested in the mystery as in the daily struggles of a woman who is perpetually "waking up" in a new scene, not too sure of how she came to be there or what she's doing.

I hadn't heard about Ruth Rendell's praise, and I'm so glad to know that she appreciated this novel. I think it has a lot in common with her Barbara Vine works, as well as those wonderful mid career novels such as A Tree of Hands and Live Flesh. The compelling mysteries in ordinary lives . . .

I heard that Emma Healey worked for some ungodly long time on the book -- 7 years? 10? -- and that the character of Helen, Maud's daughter, was far and away the most difficult for her to write. What a pleasure to read how well it turned out!