The right word has gone

16 June 2016

Maud is an 80-something-year-old woman who can’t remember what things are called because she has dementia. Her way of describing something she cannot name demonstrates author Emma Healey’s feel for language:
“lots of things for drinking, for putting drink in, on the table” for glasses
“ripping the plastic from a pack of those things, little sticks, not whistles. The things you light up” for cigarettes
“a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle” for pencils.
Her novel Elizabeth is Missing (Penguin Random House, 2014) was inspired by her grandmothers’ experiences.

There are many other things that Maud cannot remember, most importantly, what has happened to her friend Elizabeth. She writes notes to try to jog her memory but these usually result in even more confusion. Amazingly the reader does not feel depressed or bored by her predicament. Instead one admires her tenacity and empathises with her. Everyone who has at one time forgotten the word for something or someone’s name, can easily imagine how frustrating life is for Maud. Some of her memory lapses are comic, like when she wants a bath and asks if there is a “cooking pot for humans … for boiling humans”.

There is a mystery at the heart of the story – what happened to Maud’s sister Sukey in the post-war years. Her ongoing quest to find out what has happened to Elizabeth is mirrored by her memories of events before and after her sister’s disappearance. As a device, the parallel Elizabeth story wears a bit thin – anyone (her daughter, her granddaughter, Elizabeth’s son) could tell Maud at any time where Elizabeth is. However, the interweaving of her confused present and much more lucid memories of the past is well done. It is also accurate because people suffering from dementia have much better long-term than short-term memories.

Sukey’s mysterious disappearance, which has been bothering Maud for 70 years, allows the novel to develop the tension of a whodunit. The reader becomes very keen to find out what happened. But the story is also about love – love between sisters, Maud’s daughter’s exasperated love and care for her mother, Maud’s granddaughter’s amused affection, love and companionship between old friends.

This is an accomplished novel especially when one considers that Emma Healey began writing it when she was just 22. She has successfully created an elderly female protagonist who narrates the story in the first person. It is not surprising then that she won the Costa First Novel Prize in 2014.