Book Review: Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey (2014)

June 11th, 2014 12:09 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Murder Mystery for the Ages

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

Elizabeth is missing.

Caught in the grip of dementia, Maud Horsham has trouble remembering even the simplest of things: When she last ate. Why there’s an annoying white mitten covering one hand. How she came to be in a certain room, and what for. The name of this strange, freckled blond woman standing next to her. Who she is, or used to be.

Yet one thought continues to gnaw at her, to taunt Maud from the scraps of paper stuffed into her purse, filling her pockets, and wedged between her couch cushions: her best friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is in danger. She must find Elizabeth.

But no one will listen to a dotty old lady. (Maud’s words, not mine.) Not her daughter Helen, or her granddaughter Katy (though Katy is much kinder in her humoring of Maud than Helen). Not her carer Carla, who is nonetheless quick to scare Maud with tales of the victimized elderly. Not the police she visits frequently at the station, nor Elizabeth’s son Peter – who is most likely the one behind her disappearance, the miserly boy.

In Maud’s eighty-odd years, Elizabeth isn’t the first loved one to vanish with hardly a trace. When she was just fifteen, her older sister Susan – Sukey to her friends – went missing. The year was 1946, and the police chalked her disappearance up to a “hasty war marriage” – marriages committed to in the heat of the moment supposedly led to droves of missing persons reports as women fled husbands, newly returned from WWII, they found they hardly knew. (“WOMEN: CONTACT YOUR HUSBANDS” screamed one newspaper headline.) Husband Frank, who was already under investigation for coupon fraud, became the Palmers’ primary suspect; secretly Maud also wondered whether their lodger Douglas was to blame. Maud’s mother died not knowing what became of her daughter.

Present-day clues – a garden wall decorated with colorful pebbles; half of a turquoise and silver compact; a faux tortoiseshell hair comb – jog long-buried memories, so that her search for Elizabeth brings her one step closer to solving the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance. Yet as dementia continues to eat away at Maud’s memories, it begins to seem as though Elizabeth will never be found – that is, if she ever existed to begin with.

Told in the first person from Maud’s point of view, Elizabeth Is Missing provides valuable insight into what it must be like to struggle with dementia. Jumping from one point and place in time to another, Maud’s thoughts grow increasingly jumbled; she’s forced to rely on her “paper memory” – notes hastily scribbled on scraps of paper, or giant signs hung over appliances – which, of course, is only as good as her ability to place these reminders in context. More often than not, Maud wakes up as if from a dream, only to find herself lost, perplexed, and afraid.

As the narrative progresses, so does Maud’s confusion and forgetfulness: at story’s outset, she is forever making tea that she forgets to drink; soon she’s forgetting Helen’s face, with violent and explosive results. “If I look away, will I forget who she is?” Frightening, these fleeting moments of clarity.

Poignant and sometimes surprising, Elizabeth Is Missing is a not-so-gentle reminder to be kind and compassionate to our elders, as well as those who struggle with cognitive disorders. Often we see Helen become fed up with Maud, and not without reason; but living in Maud’s head, if just for a few hundred pages, is exhausting. Confounding. Frustrating and scary.

They’re very visceral, these feelings, and you can’t help but empathize with Maud – even as you feel for Helen and her resentment at being forced to assume the role of the nagging child, the spoilsport, the scold. Healey is an immensely talented writer, and Maud and her story are treated fairly and with honor in her care.

Early in the book, Maud observes of Helen: “Sometimes she makes gestures behind my back. I’ve seen her in mirrors, pretending to strangle me.” It’s a painful moment of self-awareness that brings to mind that gut-wrenching scene in Orange is the New Black, when Suzanne asks Piper why everyone calls her “Crazy Eyes.” Raw and vulnerable, it’s almost unbearable. If even just to witness.

And yet Elizabeth Is Missing is not without its moments of heartfelt and unexpected humor; my favorite is when Maud mistakes Katy for the new cleaning woman:

“Oh Helen,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. That girl you’ve hired, she doesn’t do any work. None. I’ve watched her.”

“Who are you talking about now? What girl?”

“The girl,” I say. “She leaves plates by the sink and there are clothes all over the floor of her room.”

Helen grins and bites her lip. “Pretty good description. Mum, that’s Katy.”

I know it’s still early in the year (I write this review from the budding spring of April), but it’s sure to be one of my favorites of 2014.

Recommended for: fans of murder mysteries and psychological thrillers; psychology students; friends, family, and caretakers of those struggling with dementia; anyone and everyone with a working heart.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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