Maud’s been getting forgetful. She keeps buying peach slices when she has a cupboard full, forgets to drink the cups of tea she’s made and writes notes to remind herself of things. But Maud is determined to discover what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, and what it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Sukey just after the Second World War.
There were bits about Elizabeth is Missing that I thoroughly enjoyed, like the writing and the moving account of an elderly woman, Maud, probably suffering from dementia (although that is never offered as a diagnosis in the book). There were other bits that thoroughly frustrated me, like the unreliability of the protagonist, the fact that it was not a ‘dark thriller’ (as stated on the book cover), and the gaps in the plot, which would have been exposed more with a stronger narrator. In terms of characterisation, I thought that Maud (the protagonist) was strong, but others were not. Maud’s daughter, Helen, was flat by comparison.
Elizabeth is Missing moves between the present and the past, when Maud was a young girl as Maud (old woman) tries to solve two mysteries to her. Her friend Elizabeth has disappeared, although it rapidly becomes apparent that no one else thinks she has. Maud’s failing short-term memory means that she repeats the same loops – with her daughter, Elizabeth’s son, and the Police. The muddle becomes greater when Maud tries to solve the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, who vanished at the end of the Second World War.. The reader, or this one, quickly does not believe that Elizabeth is missing, but that something has happened, which Maud cannot recall. That is revealed in the latter stages of the novel, when Helen blurts out what has happened with Elizabeth, and at this point, I could have hurled the book across the room. Healey committed the great writing sin of no new information in the closing stages of the book. If Healey had chosen to give us this earlier, which we know has been said repeatedly, then the book would have lost its premise, and its title.
The more intriguing mystery about Sukey is examined when Maud travels through the chambers of her mind, with quite forensic details. This is more credible, of Maud, of the disease, and is far more interesting. The writing here comes alive, with vivid descriptions, beautiful dialogue and a move away from the frustrating, repetitions of the present. The element of ‘dark thriller’ at last arrives with the Mad Woman, as seen through a child’s eyes. It is the most thrilling part of the book, the book that is not a thriller.
Ultimately, the mysteries are resolved in Elizabeth is Missing, and the book ends. However, the manner of ending is somehow not plausible, it demands something of the behaviour of Helen that I simply do not believe. Perhaps I had paid too little attention to the prologue, which points the way to the mystery, but I am no real fan of a prologue. It’s in the book or it is not.
All of these elements underlies the dilemma of Elizabeth is Missing, for me. It is original, brilliant in places and comes unstuck in others. I understand this is Healey’s first novel, and that there was a bidding war between publishers. I also understand that the TV rights have been sold. I can imagine it more as a TV drama, but I fancy that the producers will want something done to the ending, as the drama for a TV audience will not be able to sustain the first person narrative. Perhaps then the flaws in the structure and plot will be fixed.
I look forward to what Emma Healey does next, because her writing is absorbing, and was the saving grace of Elizabeth is Missing.