I bought this book because my husband came home with the paper one day with an article about the Costa Prize, the winner of which hadn’t yet been announced. One of the shortlisted books was Elizabeth is Missing, by debut novelist Emma Healey. I was intrigued by another story of a young writer reaching such acclaim with her first attempt and promptly bought it in paperback.
From the outset the book is funny, in a terribly bittersweet way. The main character, Maud, from whose point of the view the story is told, is forgetful. Or at least, that’s how it’s billed. It very quickly becomes obvious however, that she isn’t just forgetful, she’s suffering from the early stages of dementia and the effect is devastating. As we read, we know that it’s going to get worse even if she doesn’t and we have growing sympathy for Maud’s long suffering and dedicated daughter Helen. The way it’s written allows us to follow Maud’s train of thought as she struggles to comprehend every day situations and keep track of what she’s meant to be doing. It’s laugh out loud whilst weeping at the same time reading.
Despite its subject matter it’s not sentimental or maudlin, and I really liked the way it alternated between the present day and the past, cleverly weaving the two stories together to reach a satisfying and rather tragic ending. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of post war suburbia, and the way Healey manages to summon up an atmosphere of dissatisfaction and transience. The general feeling of there being something missing, y’know, with the war on there was a common purpose, an enemy to beat and now there’s none of that, just rationing and boredom and the devastation left by the bombs.
It’s strange, as I said, whilst reading the book I was laughing, but looking back on it I’m just sad. I feel the only way this could have been written is by having had first-hand experience of the effect dementia has on a life. The confusion and sense of the world falling away from beneath your feet is beautifully described using the first person narrative, and as the author has dedicated the book to her two grannies, I guess she watched it happen to someone she loved.
As someone who enjoys the company of old people but who doesn’t get the opportunity to hang out with them much, I appreciated the insight into how it might be to be old, being treated like an imbecile by some and as something precious, to be valued, by others. If Emma Healey did write this to honour her Grandmothers, then it is a very poignant and worthy tribute.