By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Category: Literary Fiction
Author: Emma Healey
Format: Hardcover, 284 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date: June 10, 2014
Summary from Publisher:
An internationally heralded debut novel of extraordinary warmth, insight and humanity that will appeal to readers who loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Still Alice: Elizabeth Is Missing is at once a page-turning mystery that takes us from post-war Britain to the present day and a piercingly honest portrait of love and memory, families and aging through the lens of an unforgettable protagonist who will seize your heart–an elderly woman descending into forgetfulness, as she embarks alone on a quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared.
Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory–and her grip on everyday life. Notes fill her pockets and dot the walls of her home, increasingly crucial reminders of the immediate world. Most crucial is the fact that she can’t find her only friend–Elizabeth has disappeared: she isn’t answering the phone and doesn’t seem to be at her house. Maud, convinced Elizabeth is in terrible danger, refuses to forget her even if her frustrated daughter, Helen, her carer, Carla, and the police won’t listen and won’t help. Armed with an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth desperately needs her help, Maud sets out to find her. And, unexpectedly, her search triggers an old and powerful memory of another unsolved disappearance–that of her sister, Sukey, who vanished more than 50 years ago, shortly after the Second World War.
As long-ago memories emerge, Maud begins to uncover forgotten clues to her sister’s disappearance and to piece together the mystery that has haunted her family for decades, discovering new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth?
– From Goodreads
Book Review by Zara
from The Bibliotaphe Closet:
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey is an extraordinary novel spoken through the stark narrative of Maud, now an elderly woman whose battle with Alzheimer’s has over time, disconnected her memories, misplacing them throughout a wavering timeline, one that Maud desperately yearns to grasp and recollect.
It is truly an evocative book, one that perceptively showcases the incessant self-doubt and self-questioning that takes place during the internal dialogue of someone who suffers memory loss and the ramifications of how disruptive such a loss can be in daily life.
But, the narrative is not by any means demeaning, nor arbitrary. Maud is a fully realized character, one with complex emotions and intelligence, which is how well this novel was written. The narrative not only gives the reader a microscopic view of what it can mean to be elderly, but what it can mean to be held hostage by one’s own mind.
But, Maud is not alone on her narrative journey. There are those in the novel who must, out of love, and others necessity, move to surround her with as much care and routine as can be afforded.
Carla, one of her carers, while paid to make her a daily sandwich or boil her a kettle of water for tea, also provides some empathetic humour.
Helen, her daughter, while not without the frustration that accompanies taking care of an elderly parent, must for most of the novel, not only be the primary caregiver for her mother and her daily affairs, but also bear witness to the bewildering rate in which her mother’s mental capacity and daily, independent functioning, slowly, but certainly diminishes over time.
Katy, Maud’s granddaughter, is wonderfully understanding as the youth can sometimes be, treating her grandmother’s illness more as an interesting quirk, rather than a lifelong detriment and burden to Maud herself or to the family.
What is wonderful about this book aside from how surprising and almost unbelievable it is that it’s a debut novel because of how well it is written, is how brilliant the writer, Emma Healey is, in conjuring not only a story from a collection of what first appears to be disjointed memories—into a hybrid of parallel stories that gently, yet powerfully weave themselves quite naturally into a gorgeous tapestry of true events and a detailed mapping of Maud’s thought process.
The reader is not only able to piece together the fragments of Maud’s version of events into a fairly cohesive plot and form of understanding, but also decode a subtle movement and pacing of events that divulge themselves seamlessly into the mystery that is the foundation of the novel.
The disconnect between memories also act as a transformative time loop in the story where the narrator, Maud, flows in thought from her present to her past quite fluidly, unaware that her mind has unconsciously shifted from a present moment to a historical one. This ever-present narrative accentuates not only the severity of the character’s illness, but emphasizes the strong, emotional reality these memories pose for the character, and the direct intimacy readers are invited in to witness firsthand through its traumatic drama and first-person narrative.
As readers are consistently bewildered by the disorientation and anxiety felt by Maud as she desperately tries to retrace her thoughts into some kind of cohesive understanding and certainty, the loss of her memory is the battle that dictates and demands the constant disruption of her daily life and those she affects by her perpetuated wanderings, her verbal errors, her uprooting of plants, and painful memories.
But, Maud’s lamentations aren’t without logic. They make perfect sense to her. And it’s often revealed to the reader that the characters who support her also do a great job in misinterpreting what she means when she speaks. If only her internal dialogue would voice itself out loud, rather than betray her by remaining silent, which could essentially give others a better understanding of how one of her thoughts leads to another especially to those who dismiss her mind as one that is hopelessly broken.
Her memory of the past is often intricately detailed that the reader may wonder how the true nature of Alzheimer’s actually works. Maud’s recollection of her past without her awareness of it, propels the reality and trauma of it to the forefront of the story, regardless of whether or not her supporting cast is aware of it.
And what reaches the present is a revealing history indeed. One in which the reader is introduced to Maud’s tolerant, yet heartbroken parents, who at the trauma of the sudden disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, overwhelms the dynamic of their relationship to one another.
There is Douglas, their young lodger whose friendship with Sukey rivals Sukey’s passionate and shady husband, Frank. Between the two characters, Maud is young and coy enough at the time to keep a close eye on both of them in relation to her sister’s disappearance during post-war Britain. But, Maud’s recollection, though vividly haunting, shift randomly into questionable half-truths partly because of her perception and adamant personality—partly because of her diminishing memory.
Added to this cast of real characters, is the woman in black, better known as the Mad Woman, whose restless wandering, peeking into windows, and picking at bushes with nothing more than her babbling and black umbrella (according to Maud), is the intriguing and mysterious woman who greatly resembles Maud herself in future tense.
Together these characters spell out for Maud, a traceable line to the traumatic events that haunt her—the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, and her close friend, Elizabeth, for which this novel is named.
The narrative and Maud’s internal dialogue is an enlightening, yet haunting stream of consciousness that rushes out at the trigger of a thought and flows and ebbs as a tide does in returning and leaving its shore, a mental diadem that seduces its reader to not only care about this character and her plight, but to also easily navigate through the story’s clues, much like the scraps of paper Maud must collect for herself as written clues that propagate her next, vital step. The result? Content that is beautiful, endearing, and literary.
The pacing of the novel is perfectly timed, a story that lays down its foundation in the richness of Maud’s narrative and displacement, and then easily moves into a depth that uncovers more truth about Maud’s story surrounding the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, and her close friend, Elizabeth, even while Maud’s own memory dissipates and her condition worsens. It is as if the story must climax and come full-circle as does Maud’s mind needs to completely unravel.
As eloquent as the writing is, it’s the plot that will beguile its readers into misdirection as much as perhaps does Maud’s own memory pathway that diverges into a fringe of intimacy and vividness, yet skepticism. But, by the end of the novel, the mystery of Sukey, of Elizabeth, of each character’s role in the mystery surrounding their absence, will compel readers to applaud Emma Healey’s deft pen and ingenuity.
Elizabeth Is Missing is a masterful elegy to beloved victims, to the fascinating myriad of the mind, and the ruthless power of the gain and loss of autonomy—and memory. This book is absolutely riveting, a novel literary enthusiasts will not want to miss, nor forget.
Characters: 5 stars
Plot: 5 stars
Language/Narrative: 5 stars
Dialogue: 5 stars
Pacing: 5 stars
Cover Design: 3.5 stars
A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Knopf Canada for providing me with a copy of Elizabeth Is Missing Swimming in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author:
Emma Healey grew up in London, England, where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together before learning how to write them), which she followed with an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Norwich. Elizabeth Is Missing is her first novel.
You can find more information on Emma on her official website.
You can connect with Emma on Twitter.
You can be her fan on Goodreads.
Do you know someone who is affected with or by Alzheimer’s?
How do you think you would feel if you started to lose your memory?
Is memory a fundamental part of our identity? Without it, do we then lose our identity?
What do you think is the most frightening thing about losing your memory?
If you have not yet read, Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey, what do do you think happened to Elizabeth?