Author: Emma Healey
I had been keen on reading Elizabeth is Missing ever since I’d read the Publisher’s Blurb on the back cover. With four very dear family members suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, this is one disease that has always terrified me, and I was keen to read a book which was brave enough to name a person suffering from the disease as the protagonist.
Elizabeth is missing is an idea that takes deep root in the mind of Maud, an aging grandmother. It is a fact that no one else seems concerned about. Not Helen, her daughter; not Carla, her caregiver, not even Peter, Elizabeth’s son, who can’t stand Maud’s snooping. Even the police dismiss her with faint ridicule.
Egged on by concern for her only living friend, Maud tries to make investigations. While the idea of Elizabeth’s disappearance is fixed yet vague in her mind, we learn of its roots in the disappearance of Sukey, Maud’s older sister, which she remembers in detail. Past and present get mixed up as the unfruitful quest to find Sukey converges on the fact that Elizabeth has disappeared and no one seems to care.
That older mystery was never solved, and so unconsciously Maud makes it her mission to find out about Elizabeth. To learn more, she puts an ad in the paper, digs outside Elizabeth’s house, even sneaks into her home, when Peter isn’t watching, in a determined effort to find out if he is keeping her prisoner.
Strangely, even though it is Elizabeth’s disappearance that occupies Maud’s thoughts in the present, it is the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance that her memories seem to unravel. Each incident in the present takes her inexorably towards the past. Because her memories are unreliable and her thoughts seem to slip from her grasp, one often finds oneself stranded, anxious to know how a story ended, yet powerless to get answers. Often too, the past blends into the present with such a ghostly effect, it frightens both Maud and us.
We get an understanding of the despondence in which Sukey’s disappearance plunges the family. Interspersed within the memories is the mention of Douglas, a lodger at their home, and a mad woman who attacked people with her umbrella.
It is with an effort that Maud tries to keep her quest for Elizabeth alive in her mind. Her handbag and her home are stuffed with bits of paper with various reminders to herself. Many of the chits say such things as "Elizabeth is missing," and "Don't buy peach slices." A hopeless attempt to halt the decline, to capture faint, fleeting bits of memory.
Author Emma Healey captures most effectively what a person affected with the disease might suffer from. At one point, when Carla, the caregiver, stares at Maud, the latter remarks that it feels as if she were back in school. But she can’t remember the story that was in her head a moment ago. She forgets people minutes into a conversation yet remembers her childhood vividly. Her memories about her late husband Patrick are equally unmarred.
Once she goes to the shop to buy eggs, milk and chocolate, but can’t remember what they look like.
Emma catches the fragile details beautifully, taking us through the slow decline that Maud goes through, often putting us inside the mind of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s. She has based the book on sound research and observation. If, like me, you have a close family member who is battling against the ravages effected by this disease, your heart will go out to Maud. This brave woman who, through the haze that threatens to overwhelm, clings to her friendship with unswerving loyalty.
Emma captures myriad emotions: the frustration experienced by caregivers, the amusement felt by those who are ignorant (the level of ignorance is such that even the doctor that Maud calls in thinks “it’s not something strictly medical.”), the rising feeling of helplessness on the part of the afflicted person, the loneliness of realising that your own mind won’t stand by you any longer.
Maud, the narrator, is at once unreliable on account of her fragile and fragmented memory, and reliable on account of her honesty and the ferocity with which she clings to whatever sense she can make of the world.
Written in the present tense, the writing invites us to savour it, to roll one’s tongue around the words as if they were something unfamiliar, as well they might be to Maud whose illness forces her to make sense of a world in which the familiar has assumed a cloak of strangeness.
The metaphors are a delight. Sample this: “And now the earth…has spat out a relic…where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal?”
Through the memories, one gets a glimpse of what the younger Maud was like, the one that Patrick loved, the one with a sense of humour. When her foot gets lodged in the wetness of a garden bed, she thinks, “Good thing I’m not planning anything criminal.”
Despite the unreliable nature of the narrator’s memories, we become strongly acquainted with the other characters. One of the few things we know about Patrick is that he grinned every time he saw Maud, and that is enough for us to know him. Helen’s interactions with her mother also reveal much about her.
Maud’s memories conjure up war-time England, a time of rations, and women having to take up jobs to aid in the war effort, and the fact that families often fled, leaving their pets behind in their desperation.
Through the course of the novel, Maud’s condition deteriorates further, as she gradually fails to recognise her own daughter and granddaughter. It is a slow, protracted, often painful experience of life, when seen through the eyes of an Alzheimer’s patient. The mystery of the two disappearances gets resolved at the end, and one mystery is solved by Maud herself, but not before the thin line between her present and past are totally blurred.
This one is definitely going on my read-again list.
A book to be savoured.
(I received a Kindle version of this book from Edelweiss.)