I finally used one of the little neighbourhood ‘libraries’ that have cropped up all over the place. I’ve walked passed dozens of them (one on my way home from the bus stop) and each time I think I ought to stop, but don’t, because another part of me assumes that these must be ‘garbage’ books – the sort that someone read and don’t want to keep and can’t be bothered to give away. But there’s one of these little libraries on my neighbour’s front yard, so I hardly had to detour and it felt impolite to not at least flip through, so I dropped off Nick Mason and picked up Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing: a fantastic choice to finish my summer of reading literary thrillers.
Narrated by the incredibly unreliable, Maud, we follow as our elderly and dementia-riddled first person protagonist attempts to piece together what happened to her missing friend, Elizabeth, and to her missing sister, Sukey. I thought on reading this description on the book jacket that I’d be annoyed by a protagonist that can’t remember anything (after all – I live in my own head where I am hard pressed to tell you what day of the week it is), but Healey strikes a master stroke by weaving the present day – a circular, repetitive and disorienting forgetfulness – with past scenes that are rendered in straightforward, linear prose. With this blend the reader can return to the scenes of the present with fresh sympathy for Maud, and a renewed patience as she stumbles through trying to locate Elizabeth and tries to keep straight where – and who – she is herself.
Maud is accompanied by a rich cast of supporting characters, including her daughter, Helen, and granddaughter, Katy. Much of the strength of the narrative is in the way we glean information through these more reliable sources, even as filtered through our increasingly unreliable Maud. Scenes with her family are moving as we witness through Maud the sadness and loss that Helen and Katy feel as they support, witness and bring a sunny patience to Maud’s steady decline.
So while the novel is clearly driven by the central conflict “What happened to Elizabeth?” (and soon the added question ‘what happened to Sukey’), it is as much and more about what is happening and will happen to Maud. And gosh but the novel succeeds in making the reader care – deeply – about all three of these questions.
No surprise that this one showed up on many – many – best of lists: it’s a terrific read.