Elizabeth Is Missing
A few years ago, I reviewed Alice LaPlante's novel, TURN OF MIND, about an elderly woman attempting to solve a mystery despite her advancing dementia. Fiona McFarlane's recent debut, THE NIGHT GUEST, explores similar themes. Now comes Emma Healey's debut, ELIZABETH IS MISSING, which also addresses issues of aging and loss through the lens of a mystery story. In the case of Healey's novel, however, there are two mysteries under consideration, and --- mirroring the fluidity of the narrator's thought processes --- they become increasingly interconnected until they are rendered, in some ways, indistinguishable.
Maud is in her 80s, a widow still living independently in her home with the help of a professional aid worker and Maud's daughter, Helen. She has developed certain routines and preferences in her old age: going to the corner store and working at the charity shop with her friend, Elizabeth. Lately, though, Maud finds herself unable to remember her usual routines and often unwelcome in places where she used to be comfortable. She tries writing notes to herself to help jog her memory, but sometimes those slips of paper just make her even more confused. One thing Maud knows, though, is that Elizabeth is now missing.
"ELIZABETH IS MISSING is not only a well-told mystery novel, it's a heartbreaking, deeply empathetic story about how, whatever memories and freedoms are lost in old age, friendship and loyalty can still remain."
No one, from Elizabeth's son to Maud's daughter to the people at the newspaper and police station, seems alarmed at Elizabeth's disappearance, even when Maud (repeatedly) alerts them to this emergency. Maud's increasing anxiety about her friend's well-being casts her mind backwards to just after the Second World War, when Maud's older sister, Sukey, also disappeared, never to be found. As Maud's condition worsens, the lines between the present day and that old mystery become blurred. Is it possible that Maud's insistence on searching for Elizabeth may actually bring closure to a decades-old mystery?
ELIZABETH IS MISSING is told through two parallel narratives --- one in the present day, and one from the time of Sukey's disappearance. Appropriately enough, the present-day narrative is often disorienting, as Maud attempts to understand her situation despite her advancing dementia. In contrast, the historical narrative is told vividly and lucidly, also from Maud's much younger point of view. This Maud is equally driven to solve the mystery at hand, and although she also confronts obstacles to her investigation, she never encounters the kinds of belittling obstruction the much older Maud meets in the search for her friend.
Readers who pay attention to context clues likely won't be too surprised by what actually has happened to Elizabeth, but they nonetheless will be captivated by the way Maud's story is told, and they'll feel genuine sympathy for Maud as she confronts shrinking independence, growing confusion and helplessness, and understandable frustration at the indignities of aging. ELIZABETH IS MISSING is not only a well-told mystery novel, it's a heartbreaking, deeply empathetic story about how, whatever memories and freedoms are lost in old age, friendship and loyalty can still remain.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 18, 2014