Maud is mad. That’s what everyone else seems to think anyway. That she’s some dotty old woman. They talk to her too loudly. They don’t trust her to boil an egg or to remember which plug is for the kettle. But Maud knows she is just forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and forgets it until it’s cold, and sometimes she goes to the shop and forgets why she went. However, there’s one thing that Maud refuses to forget — Elizabeth is missing.
As Maud’s short-term memory begins to fail, her long-term memory is getting stronger. Maud’s obsession over the mystery of her missing friend brings back memories of her childhood. A childhood with her beloved sister, Sukey. That is until she went missing.
Falling deeper into dementia, the present that is slipping away blurs easily with the past, leading Maud to search for answers for both her missing friend and her sister.
Elizabeth is Missing is Emma Healey’s debut novel. Published in 2014, it won the Costa First Novel award.
Elizabeth is Missing is two mysteries wrapped in one. Maud, an ageing grandmother, finds it tough to get through each day. She sits at home alone, occasionally accompanied by her carer, Cara, or daughter Helen. One of the bright spots in her life is her friendship with Elizabeth, another elderly woman who lives a short walk away.
Maud has taken to writing notes to remind herself of things, including ones that simply say “Elizabeth is missing”. She can’t remember much about it, but she wrote the notes so it must be true. However, nobody else seems to believe her. Determined to solve the mystery, Maud refuses to listen to everyone who tells her to stop talking about it. Certain things about Elizabeth’s disappearance trigger memories for Maud, and she starts to remember, in great detail, when her sister Sukey disappeared.
Following both the present and the past, Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery with a new spin. The story is told from Maud’s point of view. It’s both interesting and sad to read Maud being repeatedly told things like where she is or who she’s with. I was certain that the author must have had a family member who suffered through this, as Healey tells Maud’s story in such a compelling way. As a reader, we get a feel for Maud’s frustration at losing her memory. We also get a feel for Helen’s distress at having to help care for her mother, making sure she doesn’t set fire to her house, that she doesn’t get lost wandering alone, and having to repeatedly answer the same questions.
“My reflection always gives me a shock. I never really believed I would age, and certainly not like this.”
- Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing
As you can probably tell, I thought Emma Healey’s writing was fantastic. The characters were believable, and I loved the transition from present to past. I imagine that it’s exactly what someone like Maud would be physically experiencing, a blur between things happening currently and things that she remembers more clearly. I also really liked Healey’s use of seemingly insignificant items throughout the novel both as plot points and ’anchors’ for Maud’s memory. They were a great use of literary motifs.
Although the mystery of Elizabeth inspires the title, I didn’t feel that it was particularly compelling. I guessed what was going on with Elizabeth's disappearance very early on, and have seen some other reviewers say the same thing. For me though, the present story of Elizabeth’s vanishing wasn’t really about her disappearance at all. It was about age, self, and memory. I would like to have known how much Maud remembered about Sukey’s disappearance before Elizabeth went missing.
The mystery of Sukey’s disappearance was a little more fascinating. I found myself guessing which of the two main suspects were involved, and also enjoyed learning about other people in Maud’s life. I particularly liked learning about the family’s life following World War II and found a lot of the details really fascinating.
I’m surprised it was a debut novel, and I’ll definitely be looking for Emma Healey’s next book to read.
Why Read This Book?
- Unconventional narrator
- Debut novel
- Female author