“Pray do not mock me
I am a very foolish fond old man
Fourscore and upward
Not an hour more or less
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind
Methinks I should know you
And know this man”
King Lear Act 4 Scene 7
In his review of a recent London production of King Lear in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin wrote “If you can sit through a first-rate production of King Lear and come out even trying to make polite chat……then you may have grown a thicker skin than any human should.” And that equally applies to this book-if you can read “Elizabeth Is Missing” and come away without feeling desperate for the main character Maud and her immediate family, then you have an un-naturally deep epidermis in my view!
On one level Elizabeth Is Missing is a very clever and exceptionally well told story of Maud, a woman in her eighties who is trying to solve two mysteries, both triggered by her finding a disused compact mirror. – in the present she’s trying to unravel the clues and work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth and in her recollections of the past, she’s trying to work out what might have happened to her sister Sukey, who went missing when Maud was a teenager in the 1950’s.
The difficulty for Maud is that she has dementia which prevents her remembering why she’s entered a room 5 seconds after she gets there let alone let her remember the ‘clues’ she picks up in trying to work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth. She leaves herself notes in her bag and her pockets but they do little more than prompt her back to the same place – that she thinks something has happened to her friend Elizabeth but beyond that she can’t remember the context in which she wrote the note (although of course the reader can)
But the flip side of Maud’s almost complete loss of short term memory, is that her recollections of what happened when her married sister went missing after the war are sharp and clear. Through this part of the story we essentially follow Maud re-running in her head the circumstances of Sukey’s disappearance and the information that she, her mother and her father picked up in their search for her, including their varying suspicions of Sukey’s husband Frank, the family lodger Douglas and a woman who has gone mad and lives on the streets in the aftermath of being bombed from her home. Emma Healey’s writing in these flashbacks is very impressive, so richly detailed and yet with some beautiful descriptions, and it’s here that Maud’s memory is comprehensive and reliable.
Or is it?! For at the centre of the book Emma Healey has wonderfully drawn the character of Maud and placed her as the narrator of the book. It’s an exceptional plot device for it puts the reader into the same position as Maud, her family and everyone she meets – you’re at the mercy of her dementia and its impact on her memory in the same way the characters in the novel are – so even the reader can never quite be sure all is as it seems in Maud’s memories!
But for all the uncertainty and frustrations Maud brings you as a narrator, it’s a stunning portrayal of what it’s like to be 90 years old with no short term memory and yet enough understanding to instinctively know that you have no memory.
The depiction of what it might be like to suffer from dementia is really difficult to read in places and the experiences of Maud’s long suffering daughter Helen in caring for her would make you weep. It’s so well done that when Helen snaps and shows her frustrations you sympathise with her and forgive her because it makes you realise just what is really meant by someone who would “try the patience of a saint!”- even though Maud neither means to do it nor can she control it.
One of the most striking things about the book is how the writing makes you react. The book is very funny in places, with a sort of understated, gentle sense of humour, and at times I laughed out loud, especially at some of Maud’s notes and the situations she gets into. And yet I also feel guilty in a way for that reaction because at the heart of the book is Maud’s dementia and it is simply an awful illness to contemplate. As Maud’s memory worsens rapidly some of the consequences are heartbreaking. (And if I’m honest they frightened me a bit, for if this is old age it’s not a pleasant prospect to look forward to)
Overall, while I enjoyed the story as a double mystery, what left the greatest impression was Emma Healey’s superb character study of what it feels like for Maud, and for those who love Maud, to live with the ravages of her dementia. It’s brilliantly done. So that’s why I’d suggest anybody reading this and not getting a gut wrenching-feeling might want to see that dermatologist and get their skin measured!