Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

'There's so much I can't remember, perhaps I have got it completely wrong,...'

Maud is 82 and has dementia, she forgets a lot of things, unable to recall what she's just done, what she was intending to do, which results in cups of tea left standing forgotten, trips to the shop that leave her baffled as to what she went for, and even more sadly, the inability at times to even recognise her daughter Helen or her granddaughter Katy. Maud keeps scribbled notes, crumpled in her pocket, lying around her house, or in her bag, but she can't even rely on these when she can't recall what they meant, or why she'd written them. 

Something that keeps recurring in her thoughts though, is the notion that her friend Elizabeth, who she worked with at the Oxfam shop and who she gets on well with, is missing. Her mind keeps returning to this thought, she is certain about it, and keeps mentioning it again and again, it's a mystery that keeps nagging at her mind, breaking through even when so much else cannot. And there's something else, something in the back of her mind, a deep sadness from her past, where another mystery hides, without an answer, unless Maud can manage to break through the confusion and uncover it. 

Elizabeth is Missing is cleverly written and poignant. It offers an unflinching, frank portrayal of a person with dementia and at the same time an engaging storyline. I loved how the narrative skipped between the present and the past, and sometimes they ran into each other, people or events were muddled just like in Maud's mind. It is moving and honest in its exploration of dementia, offering a powerful and frank depiction of the effects of this illness. 

It is so sad because there are moments when Maud has a self-awareness and is conscious of how she must come across, sad when even the most mundane of situations becomes very difficult and the times when the reader fears she may end up in danger, and so sad when she is unable to recognise her loved ones, her daughter Helen who does so much for her and endures so much. I felt as I read that I understood a little of how desperately difficult it was for Maud, and for Helen, Emma Healey has conveyed this vividly through her writing, by depicting a lot of everyday occurences and showing how they are affected or complicated by Maud's illness. 

Yet the story is not without humour, there are light touches and moments that made me smile; a moment I particularly liked was when Maud was at the library, uninterested in reading mystery novels, her thoughts are that 'I don't think I'm quite up to that. I have enough mystery in my life as it is.'

As to the mystery elements, there are clues that allow us to suppose we might know what could have happened, in the present and the past, and I was interested to read on and discover the resolution to both parts, though I had an idea of what the truth might be with regard to the past before it was revealed. I enjoyed revisiting the past with Maud, hearing about her in her younger days just after the Second World War and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her sister Sukey. 

For me though the strongest part of the novel is the depiction of Maud herself, a memorable character who made me smile, made me feel very sad, whose determination I admired, whose memory loss I mourned. There are lovely, clever and relevant little illustrations heading up each chapter and are worth paying attention to as the thread of the mystery progresses. This is an insightful, moving, at times heartbreaking debut novel of memory, families, love and loss.  I didn't want to put it down and feel glad to have read it.

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me a review copy of this novel.

Published by Penguin
Author links - twitter @ECHealey | website |

There's a great post on JacquiWine's Journal about an evening at Waterstones Picadilly with the author discussing the novel. 


  1. Great review Lindsay, I have this one to read

  2. Great review Lindsay. Whilst this sounds like a wonderful read the subject matter is probably a little too close to home to make for comfortable reading at the moment. Still, a book I'd probably enjoy any other time I'll be sure to make a note of it.

  3. Great review, Lindsay. The book sounds excellent, and I'm looking forward to it, although I'm trying to save it till early July as it's our book-group read for next month. Thank you so much for including a link to my piece on the event with Emma - that's very kind of you. I'm glad you felt the story includes some touches of humour, as Emma mentioned this when she spoke about the book. It seems as though this aspect offers some lighter moments amid the heartbreak of Maud's dementia.

  4. Great commentary Lindsay.

    This sounds so good. I do think that this would make me very sad despite the humor.

    Dementia and related ills are so tragic. It is good that writers are illustrating its effects and how people are dealing with it.

  5. This is on my TBR list - I'm looking forward to it!

  6. Hi Lindsay, I just dropped by to read your review again (now that my post is up), and it's interesting to see we had similar reactions to the book. Like you, I thought the strongest aspect of this novel was Maud, and the way Emma Healey captured the experience of living with dementia through Maud's character.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this book, and it'll be interesting to see what Healey writes next.


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