Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey (Penguin 2014)

Spoiler alert

After the surfeit of minor adjectives in paragraph 2 of the book - " A woman calls to me from the warm light of a cluttered dining room. My breath curls towards her, wet and ghostly, but no words follow. The snow, sparse but bright on the ground, reflects the light on her face ..." (p.1) I was worried that I'd struggle, but in the end I liked the overall device and the writing in general.

The whodunnit format can be used by authors to provide a framework of reader-expectations around which realism and characterisation are wrapped. In this novel, 2 whodunnits, plots separated by nearly 70 years, contain artifice and contrivance. Maud, an old lady with dementia bad enough that she has trouble making tea, tries to investigate the disappearance of a friend, Elizabeth. She requires stubbornness and the ability to link clues together. Even accepting that her symptoms are erratic, it's difficult to accept the premise, not least because the novel is Maud's first-person narrative. Her vocabulary and medium-term recall are sporadically impressive -

  • "Helen sighs again. She's doing a lot of that lately" (p.18)
  • "ready to articulate my meagre findings" (p.25)
  • "Carla has suggested I try church. She's a Catholic and thinks it might be a comfort in some way. I've surrendered and let her give me a lift to a service this morning, on her way to another old crone. ... The church she goes to is an ancient stony building with comically serene-faced martyrs in the stained glass" (p.70)
  • "The vicar looks puzzled when he sees me moving my mouth during his talk, his speech, from the pulpit. Finally it's time for tea" (p.71)
  • "I want to sit and think about this new find and let the fresh air free me of the shop's musty smell" (p.93)
  • "The care-home sign is loose on its screws. The seem to have been pushed out by the brick, as if the old building were rejecting its new title" (p.168)
  • "Two pigeons nod at each other on the branch of a tree; they seem like me and this woman, chatting to each other, as if they are our bird selves" (p.176)
  • "The sun starts to angle in through the window and he rolls a blind down with a quick movement like a bullfighter shaking out his cloak" (p.243)

Maud's an unreliable narrator, but not a deceitful one. Her limited powers of expression, observation, etc. was bound to be frustrating for the author. It's tempting for the author in such cases to provide the words for the thoughts the narrator has but can't express. Less forgivable is to give them thoughts they didn't have - "'Elizabeth is missing!' I shout. I shout so the part of my brain that forgets will stop forgetting" (p.236). After a while I gave up collecting unrealistic incidents. If an SF novel's allowed to twist reality for the sake of the plot, why shouldn't a mainstream book do likewise? And the first person voice in literature is always rather artificial in the present tense. It's the plot-related details that stretch credibility the most. On p.72 with the discovery of a familiar photo-frame, the requirements of plot cause double falseness - of character behaviour and of coincidence. The transitions between the 2 time-frames become increasingly contrived. And on p.268 all is revealed by Maud in a burst of coherent thought. She's less coherent on p.275 when she attempts a plot summary - "She needed the currants to feed the mad woman. The mad woman, who was really a bird and flew about my sister's head. My sister was frightened, and she and Douglas dug a tunnel to America. I tried to follow, but I couldn't dig that far. Perhaps they took Elizabeth with them?".

The disappearance reminds Maud of her sister Sukey's suspicious disappearance after the war (1946). Much of the book goes back to those times (in understandably thorough detail) and it's perhaps these extended periods spent thinking about that phase which enables her to keep in mind Elizabeth's disappearance. The 2 time-lines share characters and locations. Both have mothers with problems - in 1946 Sukey told Douglas to put his mother in a home. The trouble comes in chapter 17 when Maud thinks she's back in the post-war era. That's after she's moved house, a common cause of confusion with such people. Stressful social situations also have a detrimental effect. I'm surprised that she copes as well as she does in the episode when she's nearly found in Elizabeth's house.

The small-scale episodes seem convincing to me though. She manages to make jokes (sometimes unintentionally), and sometimes likes people making jokes about her. She reads street-signs out, and labels in shops. She momentarily forgets words - "And there is a packet of lamp post, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It's satisfying and I pick up another just to break it./ The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil" (p.217).

As befits a whodunnit there are no loose ends when we reach the final page - except perhaps the mystery of how Elizabeth's situation never impinged on Maud's mind. There are good plot reasons for this of course, and perhaps it could be claimed that the new evidence Maud finds in the garden about the old disappearance triggers emotions that have to be expressed some way or another, even if the words or names come out wrong.

Other reviews

  • Viv Groskop (Guardian) (It's a very good novel and highly impressive for a debut ... The publishers will have thought "Maggie O'Farrell meets Gone Girl" and rejoiced. ... The drawback for me as a reader was the device that holds the whole thing together: Maud's lack of memory. ... I eventually found this device frustrating rather than thrilling.)
  • Philippa Perry (Independent) (This is an extraordinary tale of believable, ordinary tragedy. Definitely one for the shortlists and the book clubs. )
  • Rosamund Urwin (London Evening Standard) (the ending itself is a little anti-climatic: one half of the story is left too open, the other is wrapped up too neatly ... a tender but not sentimental book — charming but never cloying)
  • Eithne Farry (Daily Express) (It is a deft narrative touch, this double mystery, and Healey makes brilliant use of it to add drama and suspense; to show how an investigation in the present can unlock the events of the past.)
  • Kate Appleton (This story is a beautiful and sad reflection on the aging process and society’s reaction to the elderly.)

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