ELIZABETH IS MISSING is a Big Thing in publishing. Its debut author was reportedly paid a hefty sum for the rights and the book has more than once been referred to as Gone Gran in reference to the last thriller-with-an-unreliable-narrator that broke all sales records. For me such labelling was counter-productive. I didn’t really want to read it in the first place (hype shmype). And when it was selected by my book club all the buzz had made me expect a certain kind of book – a thrilling, suspenseful kind of book. When it wasn’t either of those I couldn’t help but be disappointed.
Muad is 82 and has dementia. This makes it difficult for her to make anyone believe that her friend Elizabeth is missing but it doesn’t stop her trying. She reports frequently to the police, visits Elizabeth’s house, writes copious notes to herself in an effort to help her remember what steps she has taken. The circumstance of her friend’s disappearance remind Maud of another missing woman in her life. Her older sister Sukey disappeared when she was a young woman, just after the end of the second world war. The book progresses to unravel these two parallel stories about missing women with Maud increasingly at the mercy of her dysfunctional brain.
For me ELIZABETH IS MISSING does its best work as a study of the impact of dementia on both the sufferer and their loved ones. As both of my parents are currently in the grips of different forms of the disease I definitely identified with Maud’s adult daughter Helen. She swings from annoyance to sadness to guilt when dealing with her mother in much the same way as I have found myself doing. Although it was a tough read precisely because it is so close to my own experiences, I found some solace in meeting a character who struggles to cope with the manifestations of dementia in her beloved parent and doesn’t always behave with the patience and understanding she might hope for. I can’t speak to the experience of someone suffering from the disease but the outward manifestations of Maud’s dementia ring very true too, though her inner monologue sometimes seemed to be too linear and organised to be truly representative.
As a novel of thrilling suspense however ELIZABETH IS MISSING missed the mark by quite some distance. I thought the solution to the present-day mystery was obvious from the very beginning and while sometimes the journey to an expected outcome can be rewarding for its own sake I didn’t find that to be the case here. The injection of a potential suspect for Elizabeth’s disappearance felt forced and unrealistic because the conceit that enables there to be a mystery at all is completely unbelievable. The part of the story dealing with Sukey’s sudden disappearance from her family life was more compelling but only relatively speaking. I still found it trod a fairly predictable path, though the sense of time and place which the author created was very well done and the family’s sense of loss was also quite beautifully drawn. So, if I hadn’t been led to believe by the hype machine that is modern publishing to expect a thriller I might not have been nearly so disappointed to find something else entirely.
I will be the first to admit that what I know about the inner workings of the publishing industry could comfortably be written on the back of a postage stamp but it seems to me that with genre fiction especially there is an increasing emphasis on The Premise. The elevator pitch if you will. Hooking people with an idea that can be easily and quickly explained. The problem with such a focus is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity and nuance and sometimes the need for those things – the need for something more than a two-sentence blurb – is forgotten entirely. I felt ELIZABETH IS MISSING suffered somewhat in this way. The hook is a good one – elderly lady with dementia has potentially important information about two disappearances…will she be able to unscramble her memories and thoughts enough for the cases to be solved? – but as far as plot goes there is not a whole lot more than this. The details of Maud’s early life at the end of the war and her present-day experiences of slowly losing her memory and her sense of self are well written and compelling in their way but mystery novel plot development they are not. And the very conventions of the Genre-Novel-With-An-Exciting-Premise lead to an unconvincing conclusion. It feels to me as if a thoughtful character study has been shoe-horned into a suspense novel shaped straight jacket and the end result pays poor service to both art forms.
As always, other opinions are available and most of them are vastly different to mine. But if I were going to recommend a novel about the horrendous effects of dementia on both sufferer and their loved ones I’d opt for Alice LaPlante’s TURN OF MIND. And either way; bring tissues.
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Publisher WF Howes 
Length 11hours 38 minutes
Format audio book (mP3 download)
Book Series standalone
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