Elizabeth is Missing (5 June 2014) by Emma Healey
I've had a copy of Elizabeth is Missing since last year, but wanted to leave it until closer to the release date to read it so I could be part of what I felt was sure to be an interesting conversation surrounding the book. I must say, my expectations were high given its early hype. Originally titled Strange Companions, it was much remarked upon for drawing global interest and sparking a bidding war between nine publishers at the London Book Fair; a year before it was due to come out in the UK, translation rights had already been sold in five countries. Bearing that in mind, I was expecting something really remarkable.
It's not remarkable. It's just quite good.
Narrator Maud is in her eighties and suffering from Alzheimer's. Her narrative is coherent, but presented as a continuous inner monologue, so on one page she may remember who someone is, or what she's supposed to be doing in that moment, but the next she has forgotten; an effective way to create a voice for someone with severe short-term memory problems while avoiding too much repetition or disorder. The main plot hinges on Maud's conviction that her closest friend, Elizabeth, has disappeared, a belief that nobody else will listen to or take seriously, particularly as Maud can't remember when she last saw Elizabeth or how long she has been 'missing'. Interwoven with this is the story of Maud's older sister Sukey, who really did disappear, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Maud frequently goes back to memories of Sukey and her own youthful efforts to find out what happened to her sister, in passages that often merge with Maud's pursuit of the truth about Elizabeth. Both threads slowly build to connected revelations.
Much has been made of how brilliant an idea it is to have Maud as the main character but, in my opinion, it's a bit of a trick, a clever device that easily covers up other flaws. It's impossible to say you dislike or don't sympathise with an elderly woman suffering from dementia without sounding like a terrible person. (Incidentally, I didn't dislike her or fail to sympathise with her, but I didn't feel like I cared about her anywhere near as much as I should have done, either. The character is supposed to be unforgettable but I'm pretty sure I will have forgotten all about this book very soon.) Equally, the fact that Maud is suffering from memory loss and mental confusion can be used to explain away a plethora of issues with the story, from muddled parts of the narrative and endlessly repeated phrases ('I can't think'), to the unbelievable neatness of the ending.
Earlier this year I read The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, another debut novel with an ageing, mentally addled protagonist in which memories may or may not be reliable; the past bleeds into the present; there is a mystery which might only exist in the character's head, etc. I found The Night Guest to be a much more complex, nuanced and effective exploration of these issues than Elizabeth is Missing. Despite the hype and fuss about the central conceit, the thing that really stood out to me was the authenticity and compelling nature of the post-war scenes. Given the fact that Healey is a young debut author who hadn't been published at all prior to this book, it's amazing how effortless these parts of the narrative feel, and I found the Sukey plotline much more gripping than the Elizabeth one.
While I enjoyed this novel, I was left slightly disappointed that it didn't live up to its status as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2014. I don't know how to recommend it, really - I can't imagine this being the type of book that anyone would absolutely love rather than just like, yet I've already seen numerous glowing reviews, and it seems that I'm in the minority by not adoring it. I think my problem with it was that I enjoyed the story more than the characterisation, but the book is really all about characterisation, which means the conclusions of the two plotlines turn out to be somewhat pedestrian. While a good, solid debut, Elizabeth is Missing failed to ignite any particular spark in me.
I received an advance review copy of Elizabeth is Missing from the publisher through NetGalley.
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