A few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.
The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys.
Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.
I have to confess that my heart sank when this novel thudded onto the doormat. I’d been looking forward to it very much but it weighs in at just over 600 pages which for a first novel, or any novel come to that, is quite an undertaking. It’s just the kind of book that appeals to me, though, one which reflects and refracts society through the experiences of a single family. In this case it’s a small one – Eileen and Ed Leary, and their son Connell – beginning in 1951 with ten-year-old Eileen and ending in 2011 with thirty-four-year old Connell inhabiting an entirely different world. In between, Matthew Thomas tells their story in such a quiet, considered yet compelling manner that you find yourself completely immersed in it.
Eileen is the daughter of Big Mike who holds court in the bar every night gently putting young men right but gambling the family money away, and Bridget who deals with the fallout, taking to drink herself when a miscarriage puts an end to all hope of more children. She’s bright, restless and determined to get away, becoming a nurse rather than joining the secretarial pool along with so many of her contemporaries. On New Year’s Eve 1965 she meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Passionate about his neurological research, Ed turns down dazzling offers from Merck and NYU deciding instead to teach under privileged kids. These two build a life together – establishing their separate careers, eventually having a child after many years of trying – until Ed’s behaviour begins to change in puzzling ways. Eileen explains it away to herself until it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong. The consultation they both attend reveals that Ed has early onset Alzheimer’s. The rest of the novel charts Ed’s slow diminishment, Eileen’s painful acceptance and Connell’s inability to do so. Not a cheery read, then, but a very fine one that I found hard to put down no matter how wrenching Thomas’s descriptions of Ed’s decline.
Much of the beauty of this novel lies in Thomas’s compassionate characterisation: Eileen’s restless discontent, her constant need for betterment are in counterpoint to Ed’s quietly idealistic dedication to his work, subtly conveying the tensions running through what is essentially a fine marriage. Connell’s adolescent self-absorption and denial in the face of his father’s illness is entirely credible. The social change that rips through the latter half of the American twentieth century is mirrored both in the lives of the Leary family and in the changes in their neighbourhood. Thomas is a master of ‘show not tell’, quietly drawing his readers into his story. If I have one complaint it would be the inclusion of the epilogue. The beautifully crafted ending with its family meal, emblematic of so much of what has come before, seemed to me the perfect conclusion to this richly textured, ambitious novel.
There’s been a great deal of buzz about this book, stretching as far back as the beginning of the year I seem to remember. I always think about the author when that happens. Such a whipping up of anticipation must feel like a great deal of pressure, particularly when you’re a young writer and it’s your first novel as this one is – a mixture of delight and trepidation, I imagine. All seems to be going well for Emma Healey, I’m glad to report, highly starred ratings in all the places that matter. Narrated by Maud, an 82-year-old sliding into dementia, Elizabeth is Missing has two strands – one set in the present in which Maud anxiously tries to find her dear friend Elizabeth, the other in 1946 in which her sister, married to the local spiv, has disappeared.
Maud has been forgetful for a little while. Her house is festooned with notes telling her not to cook, not to eat any more bread and not to go shopping. Carers attend to her basic needs, one seemingly convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart taking all old people with it first, and her daughter Helen visits every day. Maud frets about Elizabeth: visiting her house and finding it emptied; digging up her garden; reporting her missing to the police and placing an advertisement in the local paper. No one takes her seriously but she can’t stop worrying and remembering the events of 1946 when Sukey disappeared without trace, events clearer to her than what happened this morning. It was an odd time when women who contracted hasty war marriages frequently walked away from them, so frequently that the local paper ran a feature headlined ‘Women Come Home’. Frank, Sukey’s husband, had his finger in a number of dodgy pies. Some of his neighbours thought him a fine man, others were a little less forthcoming and three months in prison for coupon fraud didn’t improve Maud’s dad’s opinion. Then there’s Douglas, the young lodger whose house had been bombed and to whom Sukey has been kind arousing Frank’s jealousy. A woman driven mad by the death of her daughter looms particularly large in Maud’s memory. As dementia takes hold, events from the past blur into the present leaving Maud horribly confused yet determined to find Elizabeth.
It’s a brave move to write a first novel from the point of view of a demented narrator. Maud’s narrative is often heartrending – her cupboards are overflowing with cans of peach slices, a childhood treat, she collects rubbish in the hope of finding clues and eventually fails to recognise her daughter – yet Healey neatly avoids sentimentality, injecting some much needed black humour into her writing. As Maud declines there are more gaps in the narrative, gaps which are some times a little confusing echoing her own bewilderment. Against this, the second strand stands out vividly – its resolution, when it comes, is nicely ambiguous. It’s an impressive first novel but, for me, not quite a match for Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guestwhich was published earlier in the year, or Liz Jensen’s War Crimes in the Homewhich features the magnificent Gloria, railing against the world.
If you want to read about how Emma Healey came to write Elizabeth is Missing JacquiWine’s Journal has an excellent account of an evening with her at Waterstones Piccadilly.