Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Heaney (2014)


I can’t believe that its been over a decade since ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ was first published.  I think I read it a few years later; the fact that I mentally classify it as a recent book probably says more about my reading habits of recent years than anything else, but it is also an indication of how large it has loomed on the literary landscape.  There seemed to be something utterly compelling about a crime narrator who was unreliable because of a medical condition and who would always be several steps behind the reader in managing to piece clues together.

‘Elizabeth is Missing’ also has an unusual detective solving a crime no one else believes occurred.  Maud does not have Autism, but Alzheimer’s is only a few letters away and, though less exotic, is an illness that will have personally affected many more readers.  I don’t wish to be flippant when I write about Autism being exotic, but one of my major problems with Haddon’s novel was that there were too many times when I thought the narrator was a gimmick.  Don’t be angry – I know I’m in the minority with this concern and I’m delighted that the novel found the success that it did.  I liked the book but didn’t love it (though I admire Haddon for raising the profile and understanding of the Autism spectrum).

I kept being reminded of ‘The Curious Incident’ when reading ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ because I found the basic similarities so striking.  There was one crucial difference though for me, as a reader: no one in my family is on the Autism spectrum.  I really admire Healey for writing about Alzheimer’s as she does; she must have been aware of how many of her readers would have an intimate knowledge of this condition.  Also, unlike other diseases that loom large in the national consciousness (such as cancer) Alzheimber’s has received comparatively little press until now.  Who knows how much this novel may open the flood-gates?  As time goes on, more and more contemporary authors are getting to the age where illnesses like dementia will touch them personally, and when authors are touched personally, they do tend to write about it.

As for the novel, I found it hard going.  As was inevitable, I compared Maud to my grandmother and when symptoms differed it was hard not to blame Healey (rather than myself for poor reading).  What remains with me after reading though, is a clear understanding of the author’s evenhandedness.  She does an excellent job of presenting Maud as a well-realised character, even as Maud’s personality and identity become progressively fragmented, trapped by illness and obsession.

The title ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ points to one of these obsessions: what has happened to Maud’s best friend Elizabeth, and how will she ever find her if she keeps on forgetting the clues that she uncovers?  There is a second mystery however, which dates from Maud’s childhood.  As the two time frames interrupt each other, reflecting Maud’s own tenuous hold on the present, detail start to seep between them.  One of the things that helps ground the central character is the obsessive repetition of reactions and events; even as Maud’s personality becomes less stable we get to see how it was formed through love, loss and suspicion.

What can I say, it was well done, but it was hard for me to read.  I much preferred the historical detail as Heaney makes the most of Maud having lived in the same town for the whole of her long life.  Streets and houses merge between their past and present incarnations and the lack of sentimental nostalgia is highly refreshing.  When her carer suggests that the town was safer, more innocent in the past, Maud is disgusted:
‘”Don’t be daft,” I say.  “The town was full of all sorts when I was a girl.”  Men just demobbed getting drunk in the pubs, Americans and Canadian soldiers waiting to go home, evacuees from London or Birmingham with no home to go back to, and convalescents hoping for a cure from the sea air.’  Growing up in austerity Britain is not romantic in this novel as Healey refuses, yet again, to be drawn into comfortable, familiar, assumptions.

This is probably not a book I’m going to re-read and I do want to make sure that my recommendation comes with some kind of guidance warning.  The mother-daughter relationships in the novel mean that, despite the gripping plot, this is not going to be escapist literature for everyone.  It is, however, a debut to take note of, and it will be exciting to see which issues Healey will be forcing into the literary arena in the decades to come.

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5 Responses to Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Heaney (2014)

  1. Dessa says:

    I enjoyed / appreciated a portrait of dementia from the inside, but was disappointed in the mystery portion of the novel – it was really marketed as a sort of whodunnit, and I felt cheated when that wasn’t as strong a theme as I expected.

    I’ve been meaning to pick up Still Alice to compare and contrast the portrayal of Alzheimer’s – interesting that they both came out so close to each other when I haven’t seen anything even remotely similar before.

    • I know what you mean, I felt a bit wrong footed at the start of EiM, I really wasn’t sure what kind of book it was going to be. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Still Alice, especially as a companion to Heaney.

  2. Lucy says:

    I enjoyed the book, but as it’s an area I work in for half the week, so some of the inaccuracies regarding the administration of care grated on me a little, Usually the first step for someone at risk of wandering is a silent door/gate alarm, and family member would have been notified when she left the property, or a close-by on-call carer. Of course, that would have made for a rubbish novel if she’d never had a chance to get far on her adventures, so some mundane facts had to be left out. But in real life, Maud would have been the topic of many meetings between family, social workers, care team managers, and offered many options, not just a nursing home, such as a sheltered housing flat or cottage. I am glad Alzheimer’s and dementia is being written about more in general, especially as we’re seeing it hit so many younger people, so the more people understand the better.

    • I was wondering about that element, but I tried to put it in the same mental space as all my issues with school books (anti-bullying policy anyone?). As you say mundane reality, doesn’t make for such adventurous story-lines. Still, once more books deal with these illnesses we’ll be able to see how their presentation changes and (possibly) becomes less and less sensational.

  3. Pingback: Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly: ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Høeg | Shoshi's Book Blog

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