Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

The first character we meet in Elizabeth Is Missing is Carla, Maud’s carer. Carla’s what you might refer to as ‘a charmer’.

‘You know there was an old woman mugged around here?’ Carla says, letting her long black ponytail snake over one shoulder. ‘Well, actually, it was Weymouth, but it could have been here. So you see, you can’t be too careful. They found her with half her face smashed in.’

Carla appears several times throughout the story with her tales of doom; she’s there to give us one angle on the way people talk to and treat the elderly. Which, of course, makes you wonder why Maud needs a carer.

‘I’ve done your lunch.’ She snaps off plastic gloves. ‘It’s in the fridge, and I’ve put a note on it. It’s nine forty now, try not to eat it till twelve, right?’

She talks as if I gobble everything up as soon as she leaves…The front door clicks shut and I hear Carla locking it after her. Locking me in.

[A few lines later]

I pull a plate from the fridge…The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the cling film off. It’s a cheese and tomato sandwich.

When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the siting room.

Hopefully you’ve realised by now that Maud has dementia. This results in her eating too much, buying tins and tins of peach slices, losing her way home, being unable to follow the plot of novels and, in one particularly distressing scene, not knowing when she needs the toilet until it’s too late. Some of the most devastating scenes in the book are Maud’s family trying to support her as her condition deteriorates. (I’m hoping that no one thinks I’ve spoiled the book with that comment; Healey takes the condition seriously and there will be no miracle recovery for Maud.)

That’s only one part of this story though because the novel has two mysteries at its centre – one in the present day and one in the past.

In the present day, the Elizabeth of the book’s title is missing. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend. Maud recounts the hours she’s spent at Elizabeth’s house looking out into the garden and the ‘antiques’ she and Elizabeth have collected during their hours volunteering at a local Oxfam shop. Maud telephones Elizabeth’s vile son, Peter, to see if he can help and then sets off on her own to solve the mystery.

The current mystery makes Maud think back to her childhood and her sister, Sukey, whose own disappearance, seventy years previously, has never been solved.

Healey does a wonderful job of portraying Maud’s deterioration which, to my mind, is very realistic. She writes beautifully with some lovely flourishes: Carla, ‘…wears a coat with a fur-edged hood over her uniform. A carer in wolf’s clothing’; a bruise that Maud sustained when she was younger, caused by an umbrella, was ‘…dark against my pale skin…as if it had left a piece of itself on me, a feather from a broken wing’, and tissues are ‘…twisted like the limbs of trees and fraying into dust at the edges’. She also does a fabulous job of bringing all the strands of the story together at the end of the book, it’s so well done that I didn’t see it coming despite realising, in hindsight, there were plenty of clues and it meant I could forgive the odd moment where it felt as though the device that took Maud from the current day back to the mystery of Sukey was a little forced.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a fantastic book with one of the best final lines I’ve seen; I’ll be following Emma Healey’s career closely.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow judges EricHelen and Paola have also reviewed the book. Click on their names to be taken to their reviews.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

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21 thoughts on “Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

      • Yes, more than happy to let you know how the discussion goes. Due to holidays and work commitments, our next meeting will be mid-July, so I’ll get back in touch with you then. I’m also planning to go to Emma Healey’s event later today (all being well).

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      • Hi Naomi, just coming back to you with some feedback from our ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ book group. Everybody enjoyed the book, and we had a very interesting discussion about Maud’s character in particular. N (who chose the book) is a Dementia Friends champion, and she runs workshops with local businesses and community groups with the aim of raising understanding of dementia. We discussed Maud’s emotions and her physical behaviour, how to spot the signs of dementia and support individuals living with the condition. Much of our discussion focused on seeing the person (rather than the ‘disease’) and Maud’s character and the themes in the book really helped in bringing this to life. All in all, we had a very productive evening, and I would recommend Elizabeth is Missing as a good choice for book groups.

        Apologies for taking a while to come back to you on this!

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      • Hi, Jacqui, don’t apologise, I know how busy you are.

        That’s really interesting and I’m glad the book is helpful in understanding dementia – it seemed realistic to me but I have no first-hand experience of the condition so it’s good to hear the opinion of someone who works in that field.

        Thanks for returning to add your comment.

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review. I have a copy of this but haven’t read it yet, and am worried it will be too heartbreaking. I will definitely give it a go though.

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  2. Pingback: An Evening with Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing | JacquiWine's Journal

  3. This sounds amazing, Naomi. I’ve seen the promos on Twitter (the Bluffington Post cover is so great!) and I’ve thought that maybe this is a book for me. Kate Atkinson also wrote a character who suffered from dementia in the last Jackson Brodie novel in the series and she did – as expected – an amazing job. Maybe you’d like it as well?

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  4. Although I admired the writing in this book, I found it hard to read in part because someone close to me suffers with dementia and although I thought Emma Healy did a great job of showing that Maud was a person under the illness, I found it all a little bit depressing. You’ve done a much better review than I did!

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  5. Pingback: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 | The Writes of Woman

  7. Pingback: British Writing is not all Grey: Fiction Uncovered | The Writes of Woman

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