Debut novels often err in revealing the skeleton that supports the skin. Emma Healey’s debut novel offers us a debut novel that turns our entire idea of the organism on its head.
Maud, an older woman of unnamed age (although later facts suggest she’s in her nineties), narrates the story, which takes its title from her overriding concern about the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Maud’s memory is slipping and she uses little notes, which she sticks in her pockets and around her house, as memory aids. Many of these pertain to Elizabeth, who used to work at the charity shop with her, whose house is fronted by a stone wall with colored rocks along the top. Elizabeth’s house is one of the “new” houses built after the war. Elizabeth collects majolica pottery and specializes in pieces that features reptiles and bugs. This fascination suits Maud, who collects odd bits, including the occasional bug exoskeleton. Maud has a carer in the mornings and her daughter, Helen, checks on her in the afternoons/evenings.
Healey quickly leaves us clues, like Maud’s slips of paper, to let us know that Maud’s memory is going more quickly than Maud realizes. Soon we are questioning whether she should be left alone. The anxiety over Maud’s welfare is just one emotion that Healey ratchets up over the course of the novel. She manipulates our concern about Elizabeth like the conductor of an orchestra, first leading it one way, then another. Just when we think we have a handle on what is happening, we discover that Maud’s sister, Sukey, disappeared when she was young and was never found. Maud’s concern about Elizabeth’s disappearance seems to evoke memories of Sukey’s disappearance and soon the two become a bit confused. As we learn more of the facts behind the two cases, as we become more clear, Maud becomes less clear and is moved out of her home and in with her daughter and granddaughter, whom she does not always recognize.
This novel grabbed my heart from the first page and did not let go even when I closed the covers. I ached for Maud and her slow descent into dementia. I ached for the long-standing wound left by the loss of her sister, ripped open anew by the loss of her best friend. I ached for her daughter, who by turns mourned the loss of her mother and felt embittered by the responsibility left to her by her distant brother. Healey made me ache from so many directions there was no relief no matter which way I looked in the plot.
The structure of this novel also grabbed me as I first sensed and then, when I had to close the pages because reading was just too intense at times, analyzed that the emotional wreckage was not all that was disturbing. Healey creates a narrator who was lovable but untrustworthy, although to what degree was unclear. Maud’s dementia made her a destabilizing narrator and Healey never gives us a second or third voice with which to right ourselves.
Elizabeth is Missing is going on my shelf, but I will not need to reopen its covers to remember why it earned its place there. I cannot wait to see where Emma Healey takes us next.