Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Losing your best friend – and your mind

Elizabeth Is Missing
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014
Source: Library
Grade: A-

Maud Horsham’s best friend, Elizabeth Markham, is missing. She’s searched everywhere for Elizabeth – ringing her doorbell, even peering through the windows of her house, one of the “new houses” built after the Second World War, its lawn bordered by a wall topped with a distinctive pattern of colored pebbles. She’s called, sent letters, notified the police, even taken out an “advert” in the local newspaper, all without results.

Why doesn’t anyone take her concerns seriously?

Oh, right, it’s because Maud, now in her 80’s, is slipping ever deeper into dementia in Emma Healey’s 2014 debut novel, the psychological mystery, Elizabeth Is Missing.

Maud last saw her friend the night she walked out of Elizabeth’s junk-cluttered house to pursue her latest obsession, digging in the scruffy lawn of Elizabeth’s house, looking for – well, whatever it is has just slipped her mind.

Still, she’s found something. “The broken lid of an old compact, its silver tarnished, its navy-blue enamel no longer glassy but scratched and dull. The mildewed mirror is like a window on a faded world, like a porthole looking out under the ocean. It makes (her) squirm with memories.”

But what memories? Not of Elizabeth, but of the other missing woman whose disappearance has obsessed her for decades, her older sister Susan, her beloved Sukey. Like Elizabeth, Sukey and her shady husband Frank had slipped out of sight, in their case, during the tumultuous aftermath of war.

“One minute everything was fine, and the next she’d vanished. And Frank, too. . Dad tried the hospitals, thinking perhaps there’d been an accident, but neither Frank nor Sukey had been brought in.”

People disappear all the time, neighbors, even the police, say. People move to a different house, a different job, a different city. Sometimes wives even leave the husbands they married so hastily during the war. And Frank, the police, hint darkly, is a bad one, a husband a wife might well want to leave. Give her time, they say. Sukey will turn up.

But Maud, who was a girl when her sister disappeared, has grown old, and Sukey is still missing. And now, so is Elizabeth.

By turns funny, terrifying and achingly poignant, Elizabeth Is Missing follows Maud on her long slide into dementia as she jots endless scraps of notes to remind her of – what? To buy peaches, milk, eggs, chocolate; to ask her daughter, Helen, when to plant summer squash, like the ones Frank planted long ago in the lawn of the house where Elizabeth now lives; and to note, over and over, Elizabeth is missing.

I sometimes found myself annoyed at Maud’s convenient tendency to slip into an episode of dementia whenever she comes close to uncovering the truth about the disappearances of both Sukey and Elizabeth. And readers will guess the outcome far sooner than Maud herself – or her clueless family and caretakers. But Maud’s persistence in the face of her own hopeless situation, and her family’s agony at watching her slide ever further away from reality, remain vivid through the heart-rending last line of Elizabeth Is Missing, and beyond.

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