Emma Healey’s debut novel is a Christmas cake of a treat: a rich mix of detective, mystery, thriller, which gives an insightful rendition of the workings of a mind taken over by dementia and the effects of the condition on others. The imagery throughout is cleverly worked into the narrative, linking the vital elements of the plot into a visual collage.
Maud, the main protagonist, struggles to remember her appointments, where she lives and sometimes who her family members are. However, she does remember something very important and that is the fact that her friend , “Elizabeth is Missing”, a refrain she recites at various points of the narrative and writes on scraps of paper to remind herself. While her interpretation of this fact is jumbled, she moves between living in the present moment and re-living the mystery of her sister, Sukey, who went missing seventy years ago. As she pieces together bits of evidence and fragmented memories, Maud remembers what other people had thought unimportant and her reliance on the truth these crumbs provide is the key to the unsolved riddle. The temporal cause-effect line of detection is marvellously muddled; even as she is pondering her main line of questioning on the whereabouts of Elizabeth, which she knows to be valid, even when no-one else will listen, she finds herself wondering whether she has the evidence in the right order.
Dementia with its confusing and often cruel and frustrating maelstrom of memories, thoughts and ideas are skilfully and delicately rendered in the narrative. Related in the first person through Maud, the reader is absorbed into her new reality of disjointed thoughts: her puzzlement at the changes going on around her, her awareness of the familiarity of faces, people and places – without actual recognition – cleverly evokes some of the frightening aspects of dementia. However, Maud’s long term memory serves her well, bringing events and people from her past to the forefront of her mind. The frustration for Maud and others suffering from dementia is how to communicate this in a way that can be understood; “’Elizabeth Is Missing’. It’s the wrong name, I know it’s the wrong name but I can’t think of the right one”. Yet it is Maud’s relationships, especially with the key people in her life, such as her daughter Helen and son Tom, heightened as they are in her mind, and all of which are vital for her emotional intelligence.
Healey’s sensitivity to the way in which the senses are sharpened in reminiscence is demonstrated through her rich imagery. One such example is that of the motif of seashells; sitting in a café with her children, Maud’s emotional self-awareness reveals both feelings of entrapment and of release at the way in which dementia breaks former social constraints: “I feel as if I’m inside a shell, and I’m an old woman so perhaps I’m allowed to change the rhyme a bit”; yet this image also calls to mind burying her sister in the sand and placing shells over her. As memories are raised by certain aromas, taste and smell also permeate the narrative; “the sweet but unpleasant smell of prunes heating in gravy” reminds Maud of her feelings on coming home after seeing her sister’s husband Frank in the pub. Again, synesthetic language not only enriches the reading experience but highlights important memories as Maud begins to unravel the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance.
Elizabeth is Missing is an exceptional debut novel and a worthy shortlisted Costa first novel prize contender. I look forward with eager anticipation to Healey’s next novel.