Emma Healey’s first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, is a darkly comic portrait of memory loss, with the added twist of a detective story. It spans a variety of genres: at one time poignant social commentary on our attitudes to the elderly, at another a racing who-done-it.
Maud, our 80-something protagonist, often doesn’t recognise her daughter, and will go to the shops for milk only to return with tinned peach slices. She leaves herself notes around the house, Memento-style, and is only able to recall their advice as her own from the handwriting.
Maud, our 80-something protagonist, often doesn't recognise her daughter, and will go to the shops for milk only to return with tinned peach slices. She leaves herself notes around the house, Memento-style, and is only able to recall their advice as her own from the handwriting.One thing she’s sure about is that something has happened to her friend, Elizabeth. This may or may not be connected to the disappearance of her sister some seventy years ago, in the rubble-strewn aftermath of the Second World War. We know as much, and often as little, as Maud herself.
The disparity lies, as it must in a first-person narrative, with Maud’s lucidity when compared with how others must inevitably see her. “Sometimes,” she tells us, “when I’m having a sort-through or a clear-out, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shadowed landscape.” Healey’s prose is lyrical and poetic; shifting from the microscopic to the bird’s eye in a matter of sentences.
Maud is the archetypal unreliable narrator and yet not, both at the same time. Her memories of Sukey, her vanished elder sister, are clear and vivid, but the final link in the puzzle simply can’t be made. We get the sense that in fact Maud has been informed about what has happened to Elizabeth, but she cannot remember to inform the reader, or chooses not to.
She is condescended to and locked inside her own house, for her own protection, she’s told. “She offers to collect me for church next Sunday, but I tell her I’m not really up to it. She nods in understanding and there is a touch of relief in her smile.” No wonder she has retreated into mystery.
Choosing the comfort blanket of the past – however bleak and horrifying – over the rigid banality of the present, means Maud is reluctant to vocalise the truth. This is an incredible debut, which neatly blends voices we can trust and those we can’t: the joy of Elizabeth is Missing is that it’s impossible to differentiate the two.