A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I tend to avoid the zeitgeisty novels that everyone is reading on the train, mostly because I’m happier buried among the older novels of yesteryear that are already overflowing from my shelves – so I rely on the occasional modern choices of my book group to help me read something more up to date. Such it was with Elizabeth is Missing, which everyone seems to have been talking about – and it was only after I’d started it that I realised I’d heard Emma Healey give a reading at an event. Sorry, Emma! I should have picked it up before.
The novel is told from the perspective of Maud, a woman who is suffering from dementia, and dementia which is getting worse. She is looked after by her long-suffering daughter (whose mixture of love, patience, and occasional exasperation is drawn brilliantly by Healey) but there is one thing that Maud can’t stop remembering: Elizabeth is missing.
She knows that Elizabeth is missing, even though nobody does anything about it; she keeps writing it on pieces of paper, telling the police, even breaking into Elizabeth’s house to try to work out what is going wrong. But what could be the connection between Elizabeth missing and the disappearance of Maud’s sister many years ago? The novel follows both storylines simultaneously, teasing the ready with possible similarities…
I’ll start by saying that the writing and the depiction of dementia were the strengths of this novel – and they were very strong strengths! I’ll come back to that in a minute, but I want to get that in there before I mention my qualms about the plot. My difficulties with it are problematic to discuss without giving spoilers, so I’ll just say that I was a bit disappointed with the various solutions offered. It was structured a bit like a mystery novel, with the clever device of the person who holds the clues not being able to remember anything, but ultimately the denouement (or denouements) were rather anticlimactic and full of holes. Frankly, I came up with a couple of endings to the novel which seemed rather more convincing. Or, if not more convincing, certainly more interesting. The ending essentially took us away from a mystery novel and into an ordinary (for want of a better classification) novel.
But the problem there is really my reading of Elizabeth is Missing and the novel I believed I was reading. What Healey does exceptionally is write from the point of view of somebody suffering dementia. I’ve read a novel or two doing a similar thing, and some more from the perspective of a person descending into different varieties of madness. In all of those, the authors have tried to show mental disintegration stylistically: punctuation disappearing, syntax falling apart, and the like. It’s probably an accurate representation, but doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable reading.
Healey doesn’t take this approach: her prose is always coherent – but somehow also conveys Maud’s dementia without resorting to repeating the same lines over and over (which would be as annoying for the reader as for Maud’s relatives). Instead, she will reflect – from the tone of her daughter’s voice, say – that she must be repeating herself, or she will ask a question that she has already discussed at the beginning of a paragraph. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s extremely cleverly done. Here’s an example of Healey showing the lack of logic in Maud’s mind without being at all heavy-handed:
I pull a plate from the fridge, wondering what my line would be. The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the cling film off. It’s a cheese and tomato sandwich.
When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the sitting room. It’s so quiet in here; even my clock doesn’t tick out loud.
It’s a staggering achievement for so young a writer, and I’m pleased that my book group got me to read this after all. My misgivings about the plot are certainly outweighed by my admiration for Healey’s writing and ambitious portrayal of dementia.