It’s (more than) a little funny that I can’t remember how I first heard about Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing since so much of the novel centers around the narrator’s troublesome memory. Told from the perspective of an aging woman who is battling dementia and whose past begins creeping into her present. Healey’s first novel, it is enlightening and frustrating, examining the way that we interact with and treat the elderly while also looking at the complex way that memory works, especially as we age (which I found particularly interesting having specifically studied memory in literature while working towards my undergraduate degree).
Maud is over eighty years old and still manages to make do, living at home with visits from carers and her daughter, Helen, to help her. But her memory is not what it once was and she uses a multitude of notes to keep track of things, though her methods aren’t as helpful when it comes to figuring out what happened to her friend, Elizabeth. She doesn’t answer when Maud calls, and when Maud goes to her house she finds no sign of Elizabeth there. She tells anyone and everyone but most of them don’t believe her when she insists that Elizabeth is missing.
As time passes, Maud’s symptoms worsen and memories of her childhood break through, interrupting her attempts at investigation in the present. In the years following World War II, Maud’s sister, Sukey, disappeared. Sukey’s husband, Frank, had questionable dealings while the family’s boarder, Douglas, seemed to have an unusual fascination with Sukey, and a mad woman who roamed the neighborhood might have seen something but her cryptic ramblings might be just ramblings.
This is one time when the first person narration is completely justified, even if it also can drive the reader mad at times. Maud’s increasing memory problems translate to a lot of repetition, which is tedious to the reader but accurately reflects the frustrations of the likes of Helen, a daughter caring for an elderly parent. Unprepared for the physical and emotional battles of dealing with a reluctant and formerly independent individual; trying to come to terms with the parent/child role reversal; unable to recognize when something is important or simply another reiteration of something long irrelevant. Elizabeth Is Missing shows that there are many times when we dismiss the comments of the elderly simply because we cannot see the logic behind them. That requires being inside their minds.
I wish the timeline of the novel could have been clearer. It fits with the narrative style and Maud’s confusion between past and present, but I would have like to know better how much time passed between certain events, in both aspects of the timeline, but especially the present. Once I adjusted to the narrative style, I did enjoy the novel, especially the last few chapters. In fact, towards the end I was struck by how well this could be adapted for the big screen. Of course, an attempt could also result in something that resembles a remake of Memento for a much older generation. Not entirely sure I would endorse that, however if Judi Dench were to play Maud in any screen adaptation of this book, I’d still go see it.