Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Thursday 21 August 2014 by

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey, Viking, Penguin, BookElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Published by Viking

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Back home she finds the place horribly unrecognisable – just like she sometimes thinks her daughter Helen is a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone except Maud…


This is another book I have been dying to read – Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery whose protagonist is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of all, an elderly lady with dementia. Maud’s condition is worsening, making it harder and harder for her to keep a grip on reality. She keeps buying tinned peaches, and digging in the garden looking for a good place to plant marrows, and forgetting about her cups of tea.

But one thing she knows for certain is that her friend Elizabeth is missing and she is the only one who will do something about it.

There is no stream-of-consciousness, no ultra-modern narrative. It’s pure and simple story-telling, with the unique twist of the narrator forgetting what has happened from one page to the next. There is something heartbreakingly beautiful about Maud. Her serenity as the rest of the world suffers around her is almost comforting, but then her flashes of panic and confusion simply serve to make it all that more bittersweet. There is an inevitable frustration that you feel with her as she struggles through the fog of her illness, as she finds herself battling her family in order to find the truth.

This is a story that I can’t tell you anything about, because even the tiniest thing will give too much away and sully the enjoyment of it. This is gorgeously written, with a protagonist you might not be able to empathise with totally, but you wish you could know better. She’s a delightful story-teller and you can’t help but fall in love with her – even with her more unpleasant habits. I am haunted by this book, perhaps more by the depiction of dementia than the story itself, but there is something addictive about it. I read it slowly, devouring the pages. There is a dream-like quality to it, and it holds you steady throughout.

Why this hasn’t had more acclaim, I don’t know. There have been mixed reviews, some disliking Maud’s POV, but it isn’t hard to see why it works so well. A murder mystery isn’t a complete story without a mystery, and what could more emphasise that fact than a story with someone who can’t remember all the threads? The dual narrative of Elizabeth and Maud’s past blends perfectly, without stumble, and you never feel entirely left out of the loop although (technically) you are totally stranded.

I recommend this to anyone, whether you enjoy crime, literary fiction, or any other form of story. It appeals to all. It’s intoxicating, claustrophobic, and enthralling. Maud is one of the best protagonists I have read and although you might figure out the mystery before she does, there is something brilliant about staying with the journey.

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