Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Published by Harper

When you get to Maud’s age it’s easy to forget what you went to the corner shop for and so come back with yet another can of peaches to add to the growing collection. It’s also easy to mislay a cup of tea and so decide to make a new one, to add to the growing collection of half drunk cups dotted around the house. It’s easier still to confuse your middle-aged daughter with the memory of a sister, long lost many years ago. But by the time you get to Maud’s age and your instinct, honed over nine decades, is telling you that your friend is missing, that instinct can’t, and shouldn’t be ignored.

It’s hard to believe that the author of this staggeringly effective debut novel is all of 28 years, considering her grasp on not only the nuances of post-war England told from the perspective of a teenager, but her inhabitation of the mind of a 90 year old. Before the issue of senility and confusion there is the consistent every day routine of an elderly woman, one who has gone from volunteering at an Oxfam shop, where she meets the eponymous Elizabeth, to being banned by her carer from making boiled eggs, lest she forget she put them on. It’s told through her eyes perfectly – although it’s from Maud’s point of view, her personal experience of the world, Healey’s impressive grasp of language and her skilled storytelling device makes it easy for the reader to fill in the gaps, and compelled to see if Maud will succeed in doing so too. url

The confused memory device is used to effect both in driving the plot along in a highly original way while drawing attention to the plight of a person who is in danger of, and very afraid of losing herself. Her own frustrations are pushed further by the desperate impatience of her daughter, and the impish, light-hearted goading of her grand-daughter, and it becomes clear that memories of hurt and embarrassment linger far longer than the memories of the situations that cause them. The thread she has to hold on to is the one that is keeping her focused, and connected to her true self, and that is the significance of her friend’s apparent vanishing. It becomes clear to the reader, albeit vaguely, that Elizabeth has suffered an age related illness and has been removed from her home for her own safety, and that it’s not this disappearance that is of importance, but that of Maud’s sister 70 years previous.

So then, the story jumps between Maud’s struggle to resolve her friend’s disappearance and the niggling, mingling memory of a tragedy that occurred to her family just after the war. Her teenage memories are completely lucid, brimming with detail, and again it’s a testament to Healey that she retains Maud’s singular voice even whilst convincingly coming from the younger, more naive Maud. She is an excellently drawn character, with her 15 year old self ringing true with her later incarnation.

Sukey is the glamorous yet kind, beautiful but humble figure young Maud aspires to emulate when she has successfully negotiated through her awkward adolescence. Married recently to Frank, a wheeler-dealer type who dabbles on the black market and always has a favour or two owed to him by one neighbour or another, Sukey tolerates to his back-handed enterprises in exchange for the nice things he can supply that she has become accustomed to.

The sisters and their parents are a close knit, loving unit, but while their father highly disapproves of Frank their mother appreciates the odd bits and pieces he can produce when the ration book is running out. Their young lodger Douglas also denounces Frank as a cad, but mainly for reasons other than his dodgy operations. Sukey is who has shown him kindness and set him up with his lodgings after his house was destroyed and his mother killed in a raid. Her exceptional spirit is an intoxication to her enraptured husband, smitten friend and impressionable sister, and also to “the mad woman” who cowers in bushes and lashes out at those unlucky enough not to notice her in time.

Could it be though, that this mad woman who Maud remembers with fear and trepidation could hold the answer to Sukey’s fate? It transpires that Elizabeth became of interest to Maud when first they met because of the house shoe lived in – a house that’s garden was home to a vegetable plot that Frank helped to plant. A recollection of the mad woman’s curious attraction to the house stirs jigsaw like feelings, and a Maud we have never met – when she is a proud wife and diligent mother – becomes apparent. Despite the passing of the years the mystery of her sister’s disappearance has remained open to her sleuthing and now while she grapples with the simple, short-term memories she needs to get through the day, they throw up others which seek to solve the decades old mystery.

Although Maud is the very definition of an unreliable narrator to begin with it’s with a sense of glee that it turns out that the story is one that’s pace remains consistent, and doesn’t falter even with the repetitive inner monologue. There are times of slight frustration when her present day ramblings seem to go on without resolution, until something insignificant brings her back to a point in time of great importance, and in hindsight the slight stream of consciousness makes sense and renders the following passages a lyrical break in the storm.

– Aoife B. Burke

First Published in The Tuam Herald on 17.09.14

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s