Monday, April 27, 2015

Memory and Loss: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing was released last year, but got a lot more fanfare and buzz in the UK than in North America, winning the Costa first novel prize and long listed for the Bailey Prize. It got some rave reviews but didn't seem to be as hot off the shelves in bookstores on this end of the pond. That said, the amazing success of The Girl on the Train, with its slowly revealed story from the perspective of the unreliable narrator, may give readers here another reason to take a look.

I highly recommend it, since this book is equal in merit and intricate story telling. Healey, only 30 years old, has produced a riveting multi level mystery that had me turning pages and rushing to it whenever I had a chance to read.

Our protagonist is Maud, an octogenarian pensioner, whose memory is quickly failing her. Her daughter, Helen, is growing frustrated by Maud's repeated questions and poor decisions that regularly put her danger.  Yet Maud does not realize the stress she causes others, her thoughts are barely coherent, a thought she has quickly vanishes before she understands its significance. Yet with all the fuzziness clouding her mind, Maud is sure of one thing...Elizabeth is missing. Maud's closest friend cannot be found. Her house is empty, her things have been removed and no one seems to take her concerns seriously, dismissing her as an absent minded senior who cannot remember where she lives, let alone the location of Elizabeth.

Flash back to Maud's late teenage years in post-WWII England, where she still lives with her family and where her beloved sister Sukey has disappeared from her husband's home. Sukey is suspected dead, but uncertainty pushes Maud to try to track her down and figure out where she could have disappeared to. With her family blaming Sukey's husband, who appears to desperately miss his missing wife, Maud does not know what to believe as she tries to comfort him with memories of Sukey's initial excitement when first meeting her future beau.

This is the parallel story that Emma Healey has brilliantly told in her first novel. Cleverly told with little crumbs of clues, the reader is taken on a thrilling journey as Maud tries to discover what has happened to Elizabeth and Sukey. Healy uses crisp language that slowly provides clarity to what has happened but also conveys the messy confusion of an elderly Maud as she tries to put together her thoughts and solve these two great mysteries that bookend her adult life.

Although I have no particular criticism, I also think Healey had room to explore things more. The relationship between Maud and her daughter is fascinating. You can feel the seething frustration that Helen has about her mother, and Maud mentions in passing that she may have failed in some respect as a mother. But the back story around this is never explored. I really would have liked Healey to have gone there and it would have provided a depth to the book and make it more than just a thriller but also a family drama.

Nonetheless this was a great read and I'd recommend it as a not to heavy read for folks looking for a good vacation or summer read.

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