There have been a plethora of debut novels recently in which the story is recounted by a ‘challenged ‘ narrator ; for example The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer and recent winner of the Costa Prize ; The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion or The Universe Versus Alex Wood by Gavin Extence. Do we detect a trend in creative writing courses?
It was with some trepidation then that I picked up Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing, narrated by the elderly Maud,
Maud has dementia and the past and the present are becoming tangled in her mind :
Sometimes, when I’m having a sortthrough or a clearout, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shadowed landscape. But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the green of the pines cutting through it,the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I am sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.’
As the story proceeds, Maud’s ability to distinguish between now and then ,to remember what people have told her and even where she is becomes more and more confused.
Maud is concerned about the whereabouts of her friend, Elizabeth. Her efforts to locate Elizabeth annoy and frustrate both Maud’s daughter, Helen, and Elizabeth’s son, Peter.
It becomes clear to us as readers that many of the people Maud questions or places that she visits have become frequent ports of call for her, although she has no memory of this herself .Even her system of post-it note reminders begin to baffle her. She can’t make any sense of the words written on them.
As her memory slips away, Maud’s search for Elizabeth becomes more frantic and is cleverly interwoven with her attempts as a young teenager to find out what happened to her sister, Suky, missing since 1946.It is this family mystery told in flashback that is driving Maud’s obsession to find her friend.
The grim post war world of bombsites, rationing, spivs and petty crime is vividly and convincingly imagined. It called to mind The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis, actor Daniel’s father.
The book raises many issues about how the elderly are perceived and cared for by their families, their carers and society in general. Helen struggles to manage her mother alongside her own teenaged daughter. Maud becomes distressed and confused when a different carer is sent to her home. Helen is left alone with the dilemma of how to look after a mother who increasingly doesn’t recognise her with little support available.
This is not a preachy or depressing work, however , but a sparky and original debut ,funny and sad in equal measure.A real page turner. Highly recommended.
My thanks to Penguin Books for the review copy.