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.
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.