Baileys Prize longlist read: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

elizabethismissing

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (June 10, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062309668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062309662
  • $ 25.99

I cannot imagine wanting to go on living should I one day be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some may spout off about the “sanctity of life” but I see no sanctity in becoming a living shell, operating without the essence of what makes me who I am: without the vast culmination of the memories I’ve both earned and had thrust upon me, and the lucidity to carry out the functions of daily life. Worse, forgetting who my loved ones are and losing all the memories I’ve had with them. Most crushing of all, becoming a tremendous burden to my family and, occasionally, a joke for the antics I’d be unable to control. I’d far rather be euthanized.

The topics raised in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing are all the more timely after the recent passing of fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, who suffered the ravages of the disease for some six or seven years before succumbing earlier this week. However I believe I would react, Pratchett went at it fiercely, fighting back and going public, letting the world know he wasn’t dead yet and, indeed, intended to stave off the inevitable as long as it was in his power to do so.

He allowed himself to be filmed for the first year after his diagnosis, very candidly showing the world how the path of his particular experiences of the disease progressed. If you have a chance, I recommended watching it. That, and any other material he produced while in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Reading about it theoretically is one thing, watching it unfold in real time quite another. It will add another dimension to understanding how horrific this damned disease actually is, worse than anything I’d realized and I’m a glass half-empty sort of person. I probably didn’t need to add that last statement; I expect you’ll find it more than a little redundant.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is the story of an elderly woman named Maud who, in moments of lucidity realizing she hasn’t seen her best friend Elizabeth in quite some time, begins to suspect something awful has happened to her. Maud is quite far gone but cognizant enough to realize if she writes things down on slips of paper, carrying them with her, she can sometimes make sense of big, important things. And finding her friend Elizabeth is at the top of that list, though the repetition of it drives all around her stark, raving mad. Still, no matter how far gone her dementia, her love of her friend keeps poking through the mist. She has something to keep her going, a quest she feels she must fulfill, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Her determination is one of the last things she has left of the woman she once was.

Maud visits Elizabeth’s house, noting her son has been emptying it. When she calls to ask what’s going on he swears at her, telling her no concrete details save Elizabeth is fine and to stop bothering him. In bits and pieces, the reader later learns Maud had called him at 3 a.m. Hardly the time to expect a rational, or apparently kind, answer.

Needless to say, our narrator is far from reliable and untangling the real from the imagined is part of the fascination I, personally, felt for the story. How events seemed to Maud could be awfully convincing. You want to believe her, because she’s so determined and deserves to have things put right. Then, life has a tendency to veer off course, even without a brain-degenerating disease thrown into the mix. Is she being protected from a terrible truth, has something nefarious happened she alone is capable of unearthing or is she simply an elderly woman caught in her life’s final spiral, confused and entirely off track?

Healey tells the story both via Maud’s thoughts and memories, rational and not, and through the words and actions of those around her, mostly her daughter, Helen. Not being an expert on Alzheimer’s by any means, I believe it’s beautifully done. Writing coherently in the voice of a woman who’s fading away rapidly takes a great deal of skill. Keeping the reader flipping pages madly, not once distracted by a false note on the writer’s part, takes even more.

As if this weren’t enough of a challenge, there’s a parallel, flashback plot line as well. When she was an adolescent, Maud’s older sister Susan (Sukey) disappeared, under mysterious circumstances, as a young wife married to a man who ran a black market enterprise during WW II – a man known for getting drunk and rowdy, as well. Maud made herself sick obsessing over the case. Finding nothing after all her ceaseless searching, after the police detectives had thrown up their hands, she wound up so ill she was restricted to bed for weeks, to gain back her strength.

So there’s not just the Elizabeth mystery going on but the re-living of the past and Maud’s sister’s loss. The previous loss explains why Maud cannot let Elizabeth go. She may have failed Susan but she’s determined not to fail Elizabeth.

I expect this is the reason Elizabeth is Missing was nominated for the Baileys Award for Women’s Fiction, the complexity of running two similar stories, some 70 years apart, so seamlessly, while carrying the weight of an elderly woman with dementia. And though it’s heartbreaking reading, it’s not without its moments of dark humor. Another great skill, knowing where to insert these little bits, so the reader has a small break from the tension of reading such a dark novel.

Keep an eye on Emma Healey. The Baileys judges handpicked her to stand in as one of the more remarkable young writers writing today. There’s always at least one writer with Healey’s promise on the Longlist and, though I don’t expect her to make it through to the Shortlist, I highly recommend this as a fine novel and Emma Healey as a writer with much potential.

She pulled off a lot in her first novel. If she can take her next book in a different direction, while keeping her skill set, she may just wind up back on this list again one day. Quite a bit of pressure on her for her sophomore effort – the downside of being Longlisted – but hopefully she won’t make us wait too long for it. If I could recommend one thing to her, it would be get right back in there. Close your ears and mind to the Baileys, and produce the draft of your next novel. No small feat but you’ve come this far.

Wow us again, Emma. You can do this.

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