Elizabeth Is Missing: A Novel, by Emma Healey, (Harper) 320 pages.
In a way, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing reminds me of another of this year’s releases: Wives of Los Alamos. Like that book, it features an original, deeply engaging narrative voice. Unlike that book, it also offers a well-constructed plot.
Maud, the narrator and central character of Elizabeth Is Missing, is aging and coping with the effects of senility. At times, she recognizes family members; at other times she doesn’t. Present day events often become confused with events from the past, resulting in oddly hybrid narratives. She often forgets words, having to use description, rather than labels to pinpoint objects. For example, opening a drawer she comes upon “a packet of lampposts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone, and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the writing end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.”
Maud is wrestling with the loss of two significant people in her life. The first is the Elizabeth of the title, a friend in the present day. The second is her sister Sukey, who disappeared when Maud was a child. The heart of this novel is Maud’s attempt to resolve these two absences working within the limitations of her own reasoning, which fluctuates wildly.
This novel will appeal to many audiences: lovers of literary fiction, readers who find particular pleasure in distinctive narrative voices, mystery fans, even World War II history buffs. Elizabeth Is Missing also serves as a sort of mirror in which we see the future. We empathize with Elizabeth’s losses, which may be our own some day, and simultaneously celebrate the things we haven’t lost—family, friends, abilities, our own internal narratives.