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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review of "Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey

4.5 Stars

The narrator is Maud Horsham, an 82-year-old woman whose ever-increasing memory loss suggests she has Alzheimer’s.  She is obsessed with the fact that her friend Elizabeth is missing; in her confusion, she visits Elizabeth’s house, pesters her daughter and doctor, and drops in at the police station repeatedly, though she has no recollection of doing so.  There is another mystery, however, that occupies Maud.  Her sister Sukey went missing in 1946 and was never seen again.

What is remarkable about the book is how the author portrayed the thoughts of a dementia sufferer.  We do not know whether the portrayal is accurate, but it is certainly convincing.  Behaviour and comments which might seem totally illogical to an observer make complete sense when seen from the perspective of Maud’s interior monologue.  For example, Maud has a tendency to dig with her hands in back gardens and her actions are perceived as peculiar, but it becomes clear why she is doing so; she cannot even articulate why she is doing it, but the     motivation for the compulsion proves to be perfectly rational. 

Maud’s memory loss gets worse over time.  She forgets doing something minutes after doing it, loses words for common objects, and at times does not even recognize family members.  She repeats herself constantly, telling people Elizabeth is missing and asking, “Where is the best place to plant marrows?”  Some reviewers have criticized this repetition but it is necessary for the sake of accuracy.  She more and more lives in the past and those flashbacks to her childhood slowly tell us about Sukey’s disappearance.

The reader has to do some work.  Since Maud is an unreliable narrator, the reader must sometimes try to make sense of what she is remembering or describing.  Maud’s daughter Helen is in the same position – trying to figure out some of her mother’s comments.  Inevitably, she sometimes becomes frustrated with Maud, and we can understand why caregiving for someone with Maud’s condition can be very taxing.

There is a sadness that permeates the book.  In the flashbacks we see the vibrant person Maud once was but no longer is.  And through Maud we see the effects of aging:  the indignities, the patronizing remarks and attitudes of others, the awareness of being a burden to others.  But there is also humour throughout.  Maud has retained a sense of humour so some of her comments are priceless:  “I only really need glasses for reading, but they make you wear them all the time once you reach a certain age.  It’s part of the uniform.  How would they know you were an old duffer otherwise?  They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under seventy.  False teeth, hearing aid, glasses.  I’ve been given them all.”  At one point Maud goes to a newspaper to put in an advert asking for information about Elizabeth.  The woman taking details from Maud thinks Maud is missing a cat so there is a hilarious conversation between them:  “’Have you asked your neighbours to look in their sheds?’ . . . She asks if Elizabeth has a collar, and it seems like an odd question. . . . ‘Is Elizabeth microchipped?’”  In another incident, Elizabeth tells Helen she should fire the latest girl she hired to look after her:  “’That girl you’ve hired, she doesn’t do any work.  None.  I’ve watched her. . . . She leaves plates by the sink and there are clothes all over the floor of her room. . . . You should ask her to leave, I think.  Get someone else, if you must.  I always did the housework myself at your age, but then the younger generations expect everything to be easy.’”  Maud doesn’t realize she is describing her granddaughter Katy.  What could be a dreary read is not because of the lighthearted moments. 

This is a wonderful book.  It has a couple of mysteries which Maud and the reader try to solve but, more importantly, it deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.