‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey tells the story of Maud Horsham, an elderly woman who is searching for her friend Elizabeth. However, Maud is suffering from dementia and she becomes increasingly muddled between the clues leading to Elizabeth’s whereabouts and those related to another unsolved mystery involving Maud’s sister Sukey who disappeared without trace nearly seventy years ago.
The tag line of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ is “How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?”. A “detective” with dementia is a highly original concept for a novel and it is executed brilliantly. Healey strikes the perfect balance between the humorous elements of Maud’s forgetfulness and the seriousness of her condition. Maud will describe her actions only to forget almost instantly why she is doing something or even where she is. She writes several notes to remind herself of the clues she has discovered but can’t work out what they mean when she finds them again. Her easily exasperated carers are convinced that there is no mystery as far as Elizabeth’s whereabouts are concerned but Maud is having none of it.
Despite dealing with a difficult subject matter, the story was neither particularly bleak and nor did it trivialise the issues surrounding dementia and the isolation of the elderly. Maud is an extremely unreliable narrator but not a deliberately manipulative one and Healey’s portrayal of her condition is sensitively and poignantly written. As the story progresses, Maud often fails to recognise her daughter Helen and granddaughter Katy, but she also has occasional moments of real lucidity. Her disjointed memories come together surprisingly neatly at the end of the story as subtle parallels linking the mystery in the present and the mystery in the past are gradually revealed to the reader.
An unforgettable story about the impact of dementia and memory loss, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ is one of the best debut novels I’ve read this year so far. Highly recommended.