Tuesday, March 24, 2015

book review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The backstory: Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey's debut novel, is on the 2015 Baileys Prize longlist. It was also longlisted for the 2014 Dylan Thomas Prize.

The basics: Elizabeth Is Missing is the story of Maud, an older woman suffering from Alzheimer's. Her friend Elizabeth is missing. Through flashbacks, we also see Maud as a young woman and her struggles with the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, shortly after World War II.

My thoughts: This novel is billed as a psychological thriller, which I don't think it actually is. It is a compelling page turner, but the titular mystery is the least interesting thing about it. It's emotionally complex, and it's definitely a page turner, but I found the mystery of Elizabeth to be not much of a mystery. Instead, the mystery of Sukey is what fascinated me more. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the novel is Maud herself and how much she misunderstands and mis-remembers.

As I read Elizabeth Is Missing, I was riveted. I raced through it, but as much as I enjoyed the experience of reading it, I took issue with one of Healey's choices. Despite its title, it was clear to me early on that Elizabeth is not actually missing. Maud thinks she's missing, but we see enough through Maud's eyes to know that Elizabeth is okay, even if we don't know the particulars. In this sense, Healey makes the narrative choice to leave the reader in the dark, which frustrated me because it didn't add to the narrative or the suspense. Maud's daughter Helen, as well as Elizabeth's son, frequently mention that they have told Maud where Elizabeth is, but she does not remember. As a reader, I wanted to know too, and it would have been so easy for Helen to tell Maud in the book. There are so many things she tells her frequently because she forgets, so why is this not one of them?

Aside from that choice, I quite enjoyed this novel. My perceptions of other characters, particularly Helen, changed over the course of the book. Maud is an unreliable narrator because she lacks short term memories. She writers herself notes, but as she re-reads them trying to remember, the context is gone and her confusion mounts. Alzheimer's and dementia are vile diseases, and Maud's story shows why. The gaps between her reality and her perceptions grow over the course of the novel. To pair these with Maud as a teenager in the flashback scenes only exacerbates the sadness.

I didn't expect to enjoy the historical storyline so much, but Healey offers a fascinating glimpse into post-World War II life in England. The mystery of what happened to Sukey was the surprise of the novel for me, as it proved far more interesting than the mystery of where Elizabeth was. Even though there were only a few probably outcomes for each woman, I found Sukey's possible whereabouts much more compelling.

The verdict: Elizabeth Is Missing is an engaging page turner. It offers a window into Alzheimer's that is at times heart-wrenching. This novel is both plot and character-driven, as it explores Maud's life in the past and the present. It's a good novel that could have (and perhaps should have) been a great novel, but I still couldn't put it down while I read it. Healey is a talented writer and plotter, and I look forward to her next book.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: June 10, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Elizabeth Is Missing from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $2.80!)

Want more? Visit Emma Healey's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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  1. What impressed me about this book was that despite the repetition (Maud constantly forgetting things and forgetting the same thing over and over), Healey was able to build up the suspense and make the forgetting worse and worse as the book goes on. And I thought the reactions of Maud's daughter and granddaughter were well captured.

    1. Very well said, TJ. I agree. My perceptions of those around Maud changed throughout the novel.

  2. I want to read this one soon. (I say that a lot - LOL)

  3. I've seen this everywhere! I wonder if it would work well on audio.

    1. I thought about it on audio, but already had an e-galley, so I opted for that.


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