Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey



Emma Healey’s 2014 novel Elizabeth Is Missing is narrated by a woman determined to find out where has best friend, Elizabeth, has gotten to. But Maud, the narrator, cannot get anyone to take her concerns seriously because she suffers from a rapidly advancing case of dementia and her daughter, the police, the caretakers who visit her every day, and Elizabeth’s son are getting very tired of hearing the same old questions from her over and over again. 


Talk about an unreliable narrator; Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The elderly woman suffers from an advanced case of dementia, and she is losing more ground to that horrible condition every day. However, though Maud lives in a world inside her own head that is such a blending of the present with the past that she is in a constant state of confusion, she knows two things for certain: she can find neither her friend Elizabeth nor her own sister, Sukey. The problem is that Elizabeth is missing right now, but Sukey disappeared just a few months after World War II and hasn’t been seen since. Now, Maud cannot always be certain for which of the two women she is looking. Even so, she keeps looking for them even as what’s left of her dwindling cognitive abilities continues to slip away from her, and what she uncovers by forcing others to try to keep up with her turns out to be more than anyone bargained for, including Maud. 


Elizabeth Is Missing would have been a good mystery even without its unusual narrator. The circumstances under which Sukey disappeared not long after her recent marriage to a man who seemed to be living just on the edge of the law has all the makings of a very good historical fiction mystery. But what really makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the way that Emma Healey allows the reader to live for a few hours inside the head of a dementia sufferer like Maud. We stumble along with Maud in the present as very little makes sense to her, as she begins to forget the names of common everyday items that she’s used all her life, and as every little thing she encounters reminds her of a vivid memory from her long ago past. In effect, Sukey’s part of the story is told in flashback fashion as Maud literally flashes back to her detailed memories of those days. 


Bottom Line: Too many books are forgettable; after a few weeks or months, readers can barely distinguish them in their minds from all the other books they’ve read before or since. Elizabeth Is Missing is not one of those books. These days, as more and more people live to an advanced age, most every family has been, or soon will be, touched by the experience of having to provide care for a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. If you want to know what that family member is really experiencing, novels like this one are a good way to supplement your more clinical reading of the disease. Readers will not be forgetting this one.


Emma Healey

15 comments:

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    1. It is terribly sad, Jeane, no doubt about it. But it is also a way to better understand what the victims of dementia and Alzheimer's are experiencing inside their own little worlds. Truly heartbreaking. I went through this with my father the last several months of his life, and I came away from this book with a much better understanding of the pain and confusion he suffered.

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  2. I love unreliable narrators and although the dementia aspect has been used a lot, I'd still read this one. The author's name is familiar - wondering whether I've read her previously....off to check that out.

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    1. I think Healey has written seveal novels since this one. And, too, Elizabeth Is Missing has recently been made into a television series that was picked up by PBS in this country. The series is good, but its impact is nothing like that of the book.

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  3. As you mention, too many books are almost instantly forgettable. Doesn't mean they don't entertain me for a few hours, but when finished some books disappear from my memory. I love books that make a genuine impression, and since you think this would have been memorable even without the unreliable narrator, I want this one.

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    1. I'd love to hear what you think of it, Jen, so I hope you do get around to reading it at some point. This is definitely one of those books I will have no problem recalling in detail for a long time to come.

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  4. Okay, this one's definitely going on my TBR list. I love books that have something unique...and memorable...about them; books that I can't predict the ending from the first few pages. This sounds like a really good read. :)

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    1. It is a good mystery, Lark, with one of the most unlikely "detectives" you'll ever encounter in fiction. It's also very scary in a lot of ways that still haunt me...dementia and Alzheimer's are the worst thing that can happen to a human being, in my estimation. The very worst.

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    2. I agree. Alzheimer's and dementia are the worst! And very scary to think about it happening to a loved one, or even myself someday.

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  5. Once my library opens again I'll search this one out. The subject matter makes me feel a little nervous if I'm honest but there's no avoiding it so forewarned is forearmed so to speak.

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    1. I totally understand, Cath. After watching my father go through this experience for several months after his hip surgery, I am more afraid of dementia/Alzheimer's than ever before. In his case, the problem seems to have been brought on, or at least greatly accelerated, by the anesthesia from the surgery. It was a horrible experience for both of us.

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  6. I'm a Type 1 diabetic and when my blood sugar gets really low, strange things happen. The other night I woke up completely disoriented, so much so that I wasn't *quite* sure I was who I thought I was. It wasn't until I treated the low that I came back to myself. It was such an odd and terrifying experience to not know who I was, even for a short time. If that's how people with Alzheimer's feel all the time...well, I just can't imagine living that way. They must feel so lost and scared :(

    I also really liked this book. It's twisty and compelling and just a good read. Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. Susan, that must have been a terrifying experience. I had something similar happen to me several years ago when I could suddenly make no sense of the keyboard in front of me or recognize any of the contacts in my email list. My doctor, after extensive testing, wrote it off as a deep dream state of some sort. I still don't buy that explanation. And I vividly remember the confusion even though I was more confused than scared in the moment.

      You are right...can't imagine slowly slipping into that state of mind, all the while realizing it is happening and being unable to do anything about it. Absolutely terrifying.

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  7. This sounds like an important novel but I had a very close family member who suffered with Alzheimers and as with the novel Still Alice it would be too painful to read. I just hope that in the near future they at least come up with a way to slow down the progression of Alzheimers. What a great advancement that would be.

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    1. Books like this one are not easy to read, especially for those of us who have observed dementia or Alzheimer's close up. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer's for several years, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The disease finally killed her after seven years. Thankfully, my father only really experienced it for a few months before he died at 98 years old.

      I am happy, though, that I read this one because I understand much better now what each of them went through. A cure or prevention would be a real blessing to the world.

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