Every once in a while a book comes along the likes of which you’ve never read before. ‘Elizabeth is Missing,’ Emma Healey’s first novel is one. It was short listed for a couple of awards, and in 2014 it won the Costa First Novel Award. That’s the same award won by Philip Pullman in 2001 for ‘Amber Spyglass’, the last novel of ‘His Dark Materials’ series.
Maud Horsham is an enchanting character, an elderly grandmother and mother of two who has lived through the first world-war, its rationing and air raids with her parents and her sister Sukey. Now a widow, Maud continues to live in the English village she grew up in. Carers drop by during the day, including her harassed daughter Helen and delightful granddaughter Katy, but she is otherwise on her own. It is an English twilight. Maud’s days are elaborately strewn with Oxfam, fish and chips, tea-cosies, vicars and buses. There is little regard for chronology, because that is how Maud, now ninety, thinks. Maud is senile. Her thoughts, never quite within her grasp, drift like smoke from the present to the past and back again in a jumble of events and characters alive and dead.
As though writing from the perspective of a forgetful ninety year old were not sufficiently daunting, Healey’s novel is a mystery story. Imagine a (very) distracted Miss Marple looking for someone, forgetting every so often what she is looking for. How do you search for someone when no one understands what you mean including, very often, yourself? When there is no one left who shares your memories to make sense out of your random utterances. When you must remind yourself of every small thing by means of notes, groping for them to remember what is niggling at the edge of your mind? When every person in your life morphs into someone else at the whim of your failing mind, and even your own daughter and granddaughter are often strangers?
Stories that delve into the minds of characters with specific issues help create awareness regarding those issues. In 1962 Ken Kasey wrote ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in which McMurphy, later so brilliantly portrayed by Jack Nicolson in the movie based on the book. McMurphy faked insanity and was committed to an asylum where he underwent electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). His experiences with that therapy were described in the book, in turn described by another character in the book, a nurse, as doing “the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack.’ The book helped change the practice of psychiatry in real life. According to a psychiatrist Dr Pittman, the book and movie helped remove ECT from mainstream psychiatric care by questioning whether psychiatry was being used for society’s purposes or for the purpose of helping people with mental illness.
Healey’s book potentially makes a similar contribution to geriatric issues (although that is not the purpose of the book) by writing about old age, its issues and the question of reality from the perspective of an elderly person with dementia.
There are bits of paper all over the house, shopping lists, recipes, telephone numbers, appointments, notes about things that have already happened. My paper memory. Its supposed to stop me forgetting things. But my daughter tells me I lose the notes. I have written that down too. And then I have this piece of paper tucked into my sleeve: ‘No word from Elizabeth.’ It has an old date. I have a horrible feeling something has happened to her.
From the perspective of a carer, Helen, Maud’s daughter and principle carer talks about her brother Tom and expresses her frustration in a fit of bitterness:
‘He flies in from Germany once a year and flies out again and you think he’s wonderful. But he’s not here day after day arranging your appointments and talking to your carers, checking your cupboards and taking you out shopping, buying you new underwear every time you lost yours and picking you up from police stations at two o’clock in the morning.’
A charming book, one that will stay with you, and make a difference to your views on old age and the elderly. Published in paperback by Random House, Penguin Books, 2014.