Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa First Novel Prize last year and is one of the most talked-about books of recent times. As is usually the case with much-hyped novels, readers divide themselves into two camps: the faction that insists the hype is well-deserved and those who maintain that it definitely isn’t. Indeed, I have recommended the novel to two people; one couldn’t finish it whilst the other finished it but hated it (my reputation as a reliable Recommender of Good Books is in tatters round my way).
So where do I stand in this great debate? Well, somewhere in the middle as it happens.
On one hand, Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible achievement and a remarkably assured debut by a young author (depressingly, many up-and-coming authors are now younger than I am. That is a Thing that has just started happening recently, along my lower back starting to ache in damp weather).
Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this novel’s most striking feature is its startlingly authentic and unique narrative voice. Our narrator, 80-year-old Maud, suffers from Alzheimer’s and her condition is convincingly portrayed. Maud will make you laugh and cry – often at the same time.
I have an idea there was something I had to remember about Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted me to get her something. A boiled egg, or some chocolate. That son of hers keeps her on starvation rations. He won’t even spend money on new razors for himself. Elizabeth says his skin is raw from shaving and she’s worried he’ll cut his own throat. Sometimes I wish he would. The miser. If I didn’t pop round with the odd extra, she’d waste away. I’ve got a note here telling me not to go out, but I don’t see why. It can’t hurt to nip down to the shop. (Healey, p. 6)
Considering our ageing population, this story is a timely one. Healey’s unflinching portrayal of society’s reaction to and treatment of the elderly is enough to pull anyone up short.
We follow Maud as she attempts to find her missing friend, Elizabeth. This modern-day ‘quest’ is interspersed with flashbacks to 1946, when Maud’s sister Sukey disappeared. Is there a connection between the two incidents?
There is, however, something a little disappointing about this book. I would say that this disappointment has more to do with what we are led to expect from the novel than any defects in the novel itself. This book is very misleadingly marketed. It’s tagline is: “How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?” Furthermore, the Observer review draws comparisons to Gone Girl and describes Healey’s debut as a ‘gripping detective yarn’. This is setting readers up for a big disappointment. This is not a mystery or a gripping yarn: the solutions to both plots is pretty obvious from the outset (and I think that’s the point really, so no complaints). Consequently, the actual plot is rather flimsy and insufficient to support the weight of the issues explored. It feels like the same points are being made over and over again, rather than that a gripping narrative is unfolding (again, this is very much The Point, I think).
This is not a plot-driven novel, then, or the pacey mystery it is presented as. What it is is a detailed exploration of a terrifying disease. This is brought home right at the end when Healey delivers a suckerpunch in the form of a truly tragic ending.
The crime and mystery elements of this novel are totally overplayed; the actual ‘plot’ has more in common with Waiting for Godot than with Gone Girl. But I reckon the fault lies more with misleading marketing than with Emma Healey, who has created a truly memorable, wholly authentic voice in Maud.