I reckon that many fiction publishers have latched onto the fact that there are a lot of very keen readers for novels which switch between different times and different narrators. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, it’s actually the same narrator – Maud – but in a voice much altered by the passage of time, so that the effect is almost of two distinctly different people.
Or so it seems at first. The more you read, the more you see the similarities between the younger and older person. Maud as the older narrator is suffering from dementia and her voice and obsessions have become simple and child-like. She can no longer remember what she’s done earlier in the day, but parts of the distant past have become crystal clear to her. Maud is now obsessed with trying to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing through some ill treatment. Maud repeatedly goes over the same ground (literally), going back and forth to Elizabeth’s house and, apparently, to the police station to report her disappearance. Maud writes herself notes to try to aid her memory and to keep a record of the important facts she’s convinced she’s discovering.
Maud’s present-day journeys awaken memories of her sister Sukey and of her efforts to find her when she went missing many decades before. In her search for Elizabeth, Maud discovers the truth, or at least a part of the truth, about Sukey’s disappearance. The younger Maud had become ill and was protected by her parents, and now that she is old it is her daughter and granddaughter, Helen and Katy, who are trying to protect her. Time and time again we see struggles within families with different generations attempting to look after parents living in difficult situations or fighting mental instability or infirmity. Young Maud’s family had a lodger, Douglas, whose home had been bombed out and who was secretly trying to protect and look after his elderly “mad” mother, while also repeatedly hunting for Sukey.
All the characters in Elizabeth is Missing are coping with the loss of a loved one and/or the loss of possessions and a home. Sukey’s husband (and possible nemesis) Frank, goes from being surrounded by an abundance of possessions – so many that it’s hard to move around his house – to having nothing and being reduced to living on the outside of society. Maud, too, both as a child and as an old woman hoards possessions, whether these be oddments which she regards as clues found while walking and looking for her sister or for Elizabeth, or tins of peaches. Like Frank, like the bombed-out Douglas and like Elizabeth, she is finally inevitably reduced to having to have very few possessions.
Emma Healey deals with these ideas with clarity and sympathy, without ever losing sight of her current-day or older characters or plots. To anyone with older relatives or with close friends or family members with mental health problems, this can be a difficult book to read, being at times painfully honest about the problems faced in a relationship where communication has often broken down to the extent that one side no longer recognises the identity of the other. This is the well-deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award for 2014, and I look forward to reading more from this terrific new talent.
Rating: 5 stars