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by Emma Healey
Harper, June 2014
303 pages
ISBN: 0062309668

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Maud Horsham lived through the Blitz. Now in her mid-80s, she can remember those days with clarity; what she cannot remember with any certainty is that she has bought far more tinned peaches than is reasonable and that she really mustn't buy any more. But what she also does remember is something that no one around her believes - her good friend Elizabeth is missing. Painfully aware of the inadequacies of her memory, Maud writes herself endless notes so that she can keep Elizabeth in mind.

The unreliable narrator is currently a popular device in crime and mainstream fiction. Emma Healey has set a very high bar in her debut novel by inventing a first-person narrator slipping into full-scale dementia and getting worse by the chapter. Initially, I was dubious about the approach. In the first place, Healey is twenty-eight and the problem of appropriation of voice immediately arose - it does not necessarily involve helping oneself to a different culture. Dementia is to a large extent a world closed to those who do not suffer from it. How can an author who is more than thirty years shy of her first senior moment have the temerity to speak in the voice of a woman who is, quite literally, losing her mind?

I don't know, but Healey manages it. She also manages to provide something of the perspective of the daughter who must cope with a mother fast slipping away and even to make some sense of the apparently random behaviour of her protagonist.

There are two narratives in ELIZABETH IS MISSING. One, in the present tense, records Maud's frustration as she tries to convince someone, anyone, to look for her friend Elizabeth, who is not home, who is missing. She visits the police several times, forgetting each time that she has been there before, she goes to services at Elizabeth's church, she even puts a notice in the local paper, but all she gets is bland assurances and pats on the hand. No wonder she sometimes breaks things out of sheer frustration.

The second narrative line is in the past tense and concerns the disappearance of Maud's sister shortly after the end of the Second World War. It is this story that qualifies the book as crime fiction, at least in part. While Maud's short-term memory is deplorable, her memory of past events is clear and vivid, or so it would appear. Sukey, some years older than Maud, married a man named Frank who was a minor criminal, involved in black-market dealing. He drinks too much and is said to be a jealous man. Was he jealous of Douglas, the lodger who lives with Maud's family? Did he have cause? And who is the mad woman who keeps turning up, frightening Sukey and lurking about long after Sukey has disappeared?

Maud has very clear memories of the time surrounding Sukey's disappearance. As she says, early in the book:

"Sometimes...I find photos from my youth, and it's a shock to see everything in black and white....But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the pines gutting thought it, the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays - though I'm sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles - nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph."

But she does not remember (or if she does, she does not mention it) anything that happened after that bright period of her youth - nothing of her marriage, the birth of her children, or her husband's death. It is as though her life somehow came to an end with the inexplicable disappearance of her sister and now, at the actual end of it, only those memories, bound up as they are with Elizabeth's equally incomprehensible vanishing, give her a means of retaining something of herself.

When Maud was a girl, her mother complained that she had to stop collecting all the odd bits that were stuffed in her pockets. "What's it all for? What are you planning to do with it?" she asks. "I thought they might have been Sukey's, " Maud explains. Now seventy years on, she is still collecting, still hoping to find out what happened to Sukey. Heartbreakingly, when the reader does, Maud is unable to retain the fact.

ELIZABETH IS MISSING is Emma Healey's first novel and it is remarkably accomplished, brilliantly realized, and deeply moving. It is a book about loss, yes, but it is also about love, and about the persistence of identity in the face of disintegration. Far from a dreary trip into the dismal future we all fear, it is lightened by the quirky wit, intentional or not, of the demented and by a celebration of Maud's courage, however perplexingly it manifests itself, however maddening it may be to those who care for her. In short, this is not one to miss.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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