One of the joys of fiction is when a novel embraces a well known topic or theme and enlightens the reader more than any article or report. Emma Healey’s first novel Elizabeth is Missing is such a case. It covers dementia, a subject every much in vogue but it made me aware of the condition in a way nothing else I have read does. It extends beyond that theme to become a novel that is both humorous and engaging.
Without giving too much away the narrator Maud is suffering from dementia and is trying to resolve two disappearances, one of her best friend Elizabeth and the other of her sister Sukey in 1946. She is considerably hampered by only have her mind working intermittently. Emma Healey uses the device of an extremely unreliable narrator brilliantly as she and her daughter and others are frequently at cross purposes creating humourous situations. Further her repetition of various topics, notably marrow growing, provided the reader with clues to the disappearances although we can never be sure if there is anything to this but the outpouring of a muddled mind. The narration is not just pacy it’s troubling, tender and often sad. Although many find Maud a tedious old lady, Emma Healey manages to create rather a sympathetic character.
Her daughter Helen is plainly exhausted by her care but her daughter Katy and Maud have rather a touching relationship. Clearly the writer draws from her own experiences here as six members of her family have suffered from dementia and I have the feeling that this relationship is rather autobiographical.
Emma Healey is ony 27 and I wonder where she will go from here. There are numerous examples of novelists with only one book within them for whatever reason. I much enjoyed Lynne Reid Banks The L-shaped Room but she never matched that. Lucky Jim is much the best work of Kingsley Amis. Emily Bronte only wrote Wuthering Heights and Harper Collins To Kill a Mockingbird. It will be interesting to see if Emma Healey produces anything as fine as her first novel.