Elizabeth is Missing is Healey’s debut novel which won the Costa book award in 2014. As an aspiring novelist myself, I was eager to see what had led to Healey’s overwhelming success. With a sense of anticipation and enthusiasm, I delved into the touching and poignant story of Maud.
The book is written from the perspective of both Maud in the present and Maud in the past, with two stories running parallel throughout. Both timelines have an unsolved mystery at their heart. In the present, Maud is concerned that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. In the past, a younger Maud’s older sister, Sukey, has gone missing following the end of the war.
The start of the book introduces the reader to the character of Maud in the present, who is clearly suffering with dementia. She has a habit of buying things she already has and forgetting she has them, much to the annoyance of her long suffering daughter Helen. The moving portrayal of the protagonist’s struggle with senility shows a clear personal insight into the condition on the part of the author. Maud is immediately a likeable and engaging character. However, because the narration is so authentic, it can be a difficult read at times.
Maud sets out to try and find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth but she is thwarted at every turn by her ever diminishing memory. Inevitably, she finds herself going through the same motions again and again such as visiting the police station and calling Elizabeth’s son. None of her attempts to find out the truth of Elizabeth’s whereabouts prove fruitful until the end of the book.
The secondary story is a seventy year old mystery about what happened to Maud’s sister, Sukey. After marrying a man with questionable morals and a violent temper, Sukey disappears never to be seen again. As well as the dubious husband, the lodger has a secret and there is a mad woman lurking at every corner. Compared to the fragmented narrative of the present story, the post-war mystery can be read with ease and has a swift pace.
The haunting mystery of her sister’s disappearance is no doubt why the heroine is tormented by the fact that she doesn’t know where Elizabeth is. At the end of the book, there is a conclusion of sorts but, due to her condition, Maud’s narrations become more and more muddled and difficult to decipher. It could be argued that the ending is disappointing for those who like things tied up neatly in a bow.
All in all, it is an interesting and brave debut novel which will tug on the heart strings of anyone who has ever been touched directly or indirectly by the ravages of old age. I eagerly anticipate any further novels by this author.