Tuesday 29 September 2015

Reviewed: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing was published by Penguin on June 5, 2014.

I read Elizabeth is Missing a couple of weeks ago on holiday and I’ve spent the time since then trying to figure out how to review it. The thing is, I’m still not even sure what I thought about it. I really don’t know. I can’t say I loved it – for a short book, it took me a while to read it – yet at the same time, I found it far too compelling to say that I didn’t like it. I guess I kept on wanting to pick it up, even if I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I was reading. I enjoyed the writing style. It was straight to the point and helped me immerse myself into the story easily. Maud is in her eighties and has dementia. Though she isn’t entirely sure about anything anymore, she can’t stop thinking about her friend Elizabeth, who she hasn’t seen in a while. The only thing Maud feels certain about in life is that Elizabeth is missing, and she needs to discover why. When I recall this story, I can’t think of anything major that I disliked but there was something that stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I thought I would. One thing I did like was how the author gave dementia its realism and the character of Maud was very believable, as was the impact her health took on her family and the people who cared about her. We see the way dementia affects each generation of Maud’s family and it’s explored tenderly and truthfully.

The highlight of this novel for me was the wonderfully depicted character of Maud. Maud was the main character and narrator of this story and if I didn’t feel like I’d had much experience with unreliable narrators before reading this book, I do now. Maud is as unreliable as they come but sadly for her, that’s due to age and health, rather than a twisted mind. Maud is an elderly lady, a very forgetful elderly lady. She writes things down for memory, only to forget what she wrote them down for in the first place. She goes to places but forgets why once she’s there. She begins to talk about something only to forget what reason she had for doing so. Maud was easily confused and you couldn’t get much sense out of her, but I sure did find myself charmed by her character. I was struck by how much I really wanted Maud to find that sense of comfort and satisfaction. She was the sweetest and I wanted to protect her, put my arm around her shoulder and listen to her. I felt like she knew something important and just needed someone to give her time and encouragement to recall it – though I had no idea what it would be (or whether I was being misled, either). But that was the delight of Maud’s character – through what little sense she was making, her heart shone through and I instantly wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery, as much for her sake as it was mine.

Though of course the title of this book is Elizabeth is Missing, I found I didn’t really care that greatly about Elizabeth’s whereabouts. Maud’s narration is so unreliable, due to her dementia, that almost straight away I got the impression Elizabeth was fine and whether that was rightly or wrongly, it stopped me from being very involved in that aspect of the story. Though I was a bit disappointed that that part of the novel didn’t grab me as much as I had expected, there was more to this poignant story. Maud was often found to be going over the past and through that, we learn that Elizabeth is not the only person who went missing in Maud’s life. Many years before the present time in this book, in 1946, Maud’s sister, Sukey, also disappeared. Flashbacks take us back to the time Sukey went missing and the moments leading up to it. Sukey’s whereabouts did interest me and I also liked getting to know Maud’s character when she was younger, and seeing how life had taken impact on her personality throughout the years.

Though in theory the telling of the two disappearances in this novel linked well together, I didn’t always pick up on that reading it. I’m not sure if it was because this book took me a while to get through, and I lost concentration a few times, but sometimes I wasn’t too sure what time in the story I was reading about. I felt like it could have been made to read a little more effortlessly. Also, I found it a bit grating that despite the relatively short length of this book, aspects of the story were very repetitive. I understood that to some extent, what with Maud always trying to remember things, but at times I felt like it was a bit too much. I didn’t want to cover old ground, I wanted to learn more about Sukey and what had happened. Those parts appealed to me the most and I was left mostly satisfied with what I learnt, although it could have had a slightly tighter ending, for me. Having said that, even though I have mixed feelings about Elizabeth is Missing, I commend it for its originality and for standing out amongst a whole crop of other books. It was different to what I had been expecting, sadder and more moving, but I liked how it surprised me. I also enjoyed the contrast of the tender moments with the dry humour and Maud’s character, in particular, was delivered realistically and fascinatingly. Elizabeth is Missing will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

Saved by the character of Maud - who was genuine, honest and movingly unreliable

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