Postal Reading group
February 2021
Notes on the book Elizabeth is missing by Emma Healey

Just like the title, Maud, the main character of this book, keeps trying to tell us that “Elizabeth is missing”. In this strikingly original book, Emma Healey has attempted to do for dementia what The curious incident of the dog in the night time did for autism.

While being unable to remember the clues, or indeed where you live, might be a major handicap for a detective, Maud is no detective and this book is no detective novel. For that matter, as you probably guessed, Elizabeth isn’t really missing, and that is my main difficulty with this book. The basic idea is that Maud is unable to find her friend: she’s visited her house and tried telephoning on several occasions. Against the wishes of her family, Maud is determined to find out what happened, because this also holds the key to another seventy year old mystery.

Maud’s tenacity in trying to solve the mystery is creditable, especially given the limitations imposed by her condition, but I can also recognise it must have become tiresome for her family. In the same way, this made for a slow read because of the lack of a real plot or any significant action, unless you count Maud shutting herself in a cupboard! I understood from the very beginning of the book that Elizabeth probably wasn’t missing and that, rather, there were three possibilities: she’d died, been taken into hospital, or a care home.

The greater mystery, however, lies in the story of what happened to Sukey seventy years earlier. The snatches of Sukey’s and Maud’s childhood story are genuinely interesting, and rather more readable. Unfortunately, however, in order to get to the next instalment of the real mystery, we have to read through more of Maud making a cup of tea and forgetting to drink it, going to the shops and forgetting what she needed to buy, or simply forgetting where she lives. Of course, I’m not laughing at Maud or her condition. I can understand the distress it causes her, just as I appreciate that dementia is a very real and growing problem, for the sufferers and their families alike. The problem is that it makes it difficult to maintain the reader’s interest throughout the book. While there are occasional periods of excitement, such as the threat of discovery when Maud ‘breaks in’ to Elizabeth’s house, or the ghostly stairlift moving up, these are rather brief, and quickly resolved.

Of course, this isn’t really a detective novel, and while I wasn’t expecting anything approaching a conventional missing persons case, I was still hoping for a little more interest. For me, I believe placing more emphasis on the historical story of Maud’s childhood, and the disappearance of Sukey would have made for a more readable story. Some reviewers of this book have described it using terms like ‘gripping’, ‘unsettling’ and ‘haunting’, almost viewing it like a psychological thriller. I feel that this would be something of a stretch: although the subject matter means that this is one of those books which you can’t really claim to have enjoyed, the only unsettling thing about it was the thought that this is what awaits us in old age.

What I believe this book is really trying to do, and what it does best is to raise awareness of dementia, hopefully in a more accessible way than medical articles ever could. In that regard it seems realistic enough, and has covered not only the effect on the individual sufferer, but also the challenges it presents to their families, and even to society as a whole. The idea that Maud can remember the details of the events surrounding Sukey’s disappearance, but not that she had just made a cup of tea is also realistic as long-term memory is often the last to go. Working the historical scenes in with the modern ones is a technique which has therefore worked well. I just wish that there has been more of Sukey’s story.

In conclusion this book offers an interesting insight into dementia, but as such it is difficult to say that it is an enjoyable book. As a mystery it works less well as there isn’t really much of a plot, and the outcome is too predictable. Reading through Maud’s confused narrative is also hard work at times, which, for me at least, detracted from the overall readability.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler