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.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.