Review: ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

ElizabethIsMissingHealeyAudioELIZABETH 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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher WF Howes [2014]
ASIN B00KIYZLAC
Length 11hours 38 minutes
Format audio book (mP3 download)
Book Series standalone

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19 Responses to Review: ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

  1. Thanks, Bernadette, for your (as always) thoughtful and candid opinion. I’ve read books like that too – that are hyped as thrillers (or something else) but simply aren’t. Which is one reason I never go by hpye either. I agree completely with you, too, about Turn of Mind. Folks, it’s a book I highly recommend.

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  2. TracyK says:

    I have dealt with dementia with my parents also, although with less immediate impact than you, since I am all the way across the country and my sister is the one who is close by. When I was visiting a few months ago, it was much easier for me to be calm and understanding than it was for my sister. Everytime I read about a book dealing with that subject I avoid it, and you are much braver than I. Thanks for pointing out the book by Alice LaPlante. I read your post about that book and it does sound better for me.

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    • I’m not sure about brave Tracy – it took me two weeks to finish the book and I did so only in tiny chunks as there were tears (which meant no reading in public). I’m not sure I’d have bothered at all if it hadn’t been for the character of the daughter who did not behave perfectly all the time – even if she is only fictional it made me feel a little bit better knowing that perhaps I am not alone in being an imperfect daughter. As for the recommendation of the Alice LaPlante book it is much more harrowing – I read it just when we learned of my dad’s diagnosis and I was a mess for weeks. Just to warn you.

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  3. realthog says:

    Thanks for a very interesting review. I hadn’t heard of this book, and it sounds like one I should avoid. Mind you, I’m the person who didn’t like Gone Girl very much.

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  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I agree with you. It is much stronger as a study of dementia than as a crime novel of any sort. Burt on those grounds, I got something out of it. Half of the books I read are mainstream novels and I would park it in there.

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  5. I have this on my kindle but haven’t read it yet. I was looking forward to it but I’m not too sure now. I’ll give it a try. I hated Gone Girl. I only read a few chapters.

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    • I don’t actually think it’s very like Gone Girl Rebecca – only in that its narrator is unreliable – but it’s nowhere near the nastiness of Gone Girl and the characters here are much more sympathetic.

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  6. Definitely not a thriller but still a great book and one of the best debut novels I’ve read this year.

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  7. Bernadette: this is a book that I’ve heard about, and was wondering about, and your review is the only one that I have found helpful. That is so often the case with you – I should give you a list of the books I’m not sure whether to read, and get you to report back! I found your remarks about high-concept books to be spot on. Thanks, as ever.

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  8. Kathy D. says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. Since it focuses on an elderly woman with dementia, I’ll avoid it. My mother had dementia, lived at home near my house until my sister and I worked out her living arrangements at a very good facility near my sister’s home. But my mother had become very difficult.
    I read “Turn of Mind” and found it very painful. The protagonist’s inner thoughts were difficult to read about, but even worse were her reactions to her treatment in the facility in which she was — I want to say, imprisoned. She had no free will, not even about a haircut that was forced upon her. And so many other demeaning things were enforced on her by the staff.
    I kept worrying about what my mother went through, how she was treated. She was in a better facility with nice staff and had her own room with her furniture in it and had her hair done (!)
    by a professional who came to the residence. And the residents went outside and sat in the sun together, and there were lots of music and art activities, so I think she was much better off than LaPlante’s character. But the whole book unnerved me.
    And then the ending blew me away about the character’s mistreatment.
    So, I won’t be reading other books about dementia. Too close to home.

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    • I can certainly understand you not wanting to read about this subject Kathy – I find it painful too as, like you did, I worry about what my parents are going through in the facility they are in. It’s the best one I could find for the money we had available and I’m confident that there’s nothing untoward happening but you can’t help but wish there was some alternative. Like the disease not existing in the first place. I read TURN OF MIND just as we had found out my father’s diagnosis and though it scared me and saddened me I guess in a way it did help me to understand the types of things that I could expect to happen as I really had no idea. I find it a lot more helpful than the brochures they handed me at the clinic which tried to be all glossy and positive.

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  9. Kathy D. says:

    I sympathize. Yes, the disease is awful. My mother always knew my sister, but not my brother-in law and called my nephew “the boy,” and couldn’t remember his name. She knew me, my sister and the facility staff.
    I think she was well treated and I got monthly colorful bulletins, which often showed my mother outside or at dinner or sitting and watching cooking or crafts.
    I trust your parents are being well taken care of, but you could visit and see how they are.

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    • Oh I do visit Kathy but due to the advanced state of their illnesses there’s sometimes not a lot for me to go on – e.g. my dad claims he’s being beaten and all his stuff is being stolen – both of these things are patently untrue but he believes it and so it distresses him.

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  10. Kathy D. says:

    As someone said to me and my sister when we were trying to figure out what to do with our mother who had dementia, “the person with dementia is the last to know.” True.

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