Literature is replete with unreliable narrators, but you’ve never encountered an unreliable narrator like the one in Emma Healey’s mournful and luminous debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing. Maud Horsham isn’t remotely evil. She’s not pathologically dishonest, nor does she have some deep, dark secret to hide. Her unreliability comes simply from the fact that she’s elderly and her memory is failing fast. On top of this, she’s absolutely sure that her friend Elizabeth is missing.
Dementia can’t keep Maud from trying to find her missing friend in this vivid debut.
We learn that Elizabeth isn’t exactly missing, at least not in the way that Maud insists that she is. The person who’s missing is Maud’s adored older sister Sukey, and Sukey has been missing since World War II. Maud was a teenager then. Her present-day dementia makes her grief and longing for both women bleed into each other. Her past life is so dominated by Sukey’s disappearance that Maud’s memories of her own happy enough marriage and young motherhood barely register.
Other than this, Maud has lived an ordinary life in an ordinary English suburb. She’s like any other pensioner whose recall is getting dicey. She has a caregiver who drops by. Her daughter and granddaughter also look after her. Her son comes over from Germany to see her when he feels like it.
Maud’s deterioration makes her sympathetic and exasperating by turns—the reader does wish she’d stop shouting and breaking things for no reason, stop getting lost and try to remember what she’s just been told a second ago. But it also makes her sad and a little funny, which she’s aware of. You figure that when she was a younger woman she was kind, plucky and resourceful.
What’s truly astonishing about the book is that its author—a web administrator at the University of East Anglia—isn’t even 30 years old. How can she know what it’s like for a person to lose herself, bit by bit? How can her descriptions of World War II, with all the shabbiness and rationing and black-market intrigue, be so vivid? Of course, Healey is able to imagine and empathize on such a level because she’s simply a brilliant writer. Let’s hope we hear much more from her over the years.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Emma Healey for this book.