Elizabeth is missing. That much is certain.
The rest of the story is not so clear. This is down to the narrator, Maud, an old lady struggling with the first stages of dementia. Maud lives alone following the death of her husband and is frequently visited by carers and her daughter Helen. To these people she appears feeble, forgetful, utterly infuriating and she won’t keep quiet about her worries for Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth is missing. That much Maud knows.
Maud sets out to find out what has happened to Elizabeth, writing herself notes as she does so. These notes, which make sense at the time, become increasingly confusing even ten minutes later as Maud’s dodgy memory doesn’t quite understand what she has meant by it. And the whole episode reminds her of an incident in her childhood, when her beloved older sister Sukey went missing. Can Maud solve that mystery too?
There’s been a lot of hype about this book – it was the stuff of every debut novelist’s dream – the subject of a publisher’s bidding war. And for the most part, the hype is justified. The story is engaging and clever too – the reader often feels as exasperated with Maud as her daughter does, and as Maud herself does as she tries to deal with her increasingly unreliable brain.
The reader can guess that Elizabeth’s fate is probably a benign one, but we’re less sure what happened to Sukey. As Maud spends more time in the past, more details become known in her story and we are transported to post-wartime London, where our worries about Maud as an unreliable narrator pass from her not remembering key details to her not knowing them due to her age and naivete.
The two stories become interlinked in Maud’s brain as our elderly detective has to move into her daughter’s house when her condition deteriorates sharply. And in the end the story becomes one of time – can Maud discover the truth before it’s too late? Can we all do everything we want before we run out of time?
I really enjoyed this assured first novel, a compelling read, well written enough to draw you in and overlook the flaws in the narration device. I look forward to seeing what Healey writes next.
Elizabeth is Missing is available now, from Penguin Books