Friday, 2 October 2015

Review: 'Elizabeth Is Missing', by Emma Healey

I know I seem almost exclusively sci-fi and series in my reading now, but I made a bet with myself to not read any more sci-fi for the next 3 months (except Dr Who, for the marathon, obviously!), and to get back to reading other kinds of lit.  My first read was this wonderful book, so wonderful that I have had to give it its own review.

Elizabeth Is Missing SHOULD have been highly depressing, featuring a protagonist who is slowly forgetting everything, with dementia.  I find dementia terrifying (as a possibility for myself and my family, having watched it happen to a grandparent), and highly distressing.

But the book didn’t work out that way at all. The heroine is the one of the most compromised and unreliable narrators I’ve ever read, yet I felt nothing but sympathy and identification with her throughout. All the weird things she says, that you can see to the other characters seem to be coming from nowhere, indicating she is just utterly lost, are shown to be the product of what remains of semi-lucid memory and thought processes.  In her mind, Maud is trying to solve what she sees as the terrifying and perplexing disappearance of her only remaining friend and confidante, Elizabeth.  All the way through the book, she searches, going to the same places over and over, losing her thread, going back, doing it again; sometimes holding on to a vague idea of what she was doing, sometimes not.  

Interspersed with this are her long ago memories of the immediately post war period, where she was a just about teen, living with her parents and her sister, Sukey.  Sukey too vanishes.  And the novel revolves around byplay between Maud’s twisted and desperate perceptions of the present, and her clear and revealing memories of the past and what happened to Sukey.  I’m not spoilering you (as it is obvious), to say that by the close of the book, Maud has released enough information and in enough of an understandable way that the crime of what happened to Sukey is resolved, with the help of her exasperated and at the end of her tether daughter.  As for Elizabeth…?  I won’t spoiler that one.

I can’t emphasize enough how unputdownable this book is.  I have no idea if the depiction of the slowly unravelling and black holed mind of the dementia-ed protagonist is accurate or not (how can we entirely tell?), but it feels very plausible.  I cannot understand how reading the book didn’t terrify me to my core, as what is happening to Maud’s mind is dreadful.  But it didn’t.  I felt strong fellow feeling and identification with her, and I was desperate with her, for her to find Elizabeth, or even get downstairs safely.  There are several times when she wanders off out to do things (as dementia patients do), and I seriously worried if she would get home safely, or if anything befell her, how on earth she’d get out of it, as she wouldn’t be able to remember from one moment to the next how on earth she got there, or what was happening.  

I suppose there may be comparisons here with the slick Memento, or even the far more relevant (and harrowing) Still Alice by Lisa Genova – but this book was something all of its own.  The closest I can give you for feel, is the Alzheimer's sufferer in Ruth Rendell's Thirteen Steps Down, who keeps putting the wrong things in washing machines and all over the house, which makes perfect sense when read from her point of view; and none when others view her.  This book has two huge strengths.  It's an almost perfect minute portrait of everyday details in two completely different English eras.  Now: where care in the community and lack of funding make holding on to people who wander physically and mentally increasingly difficult;  and the immediately post-World War 2 period, where people did vanish and walk away from their lives all the time, as history makes clear…But also: it feels so much more rooted and real, in terms of identity, than many books I have read about characters with crystal clear yet flawed human thinking, in any time period. 

It’s an amazing feat to be able to give a character a clear and rounded identity of many facets in two stages of their lives, and have them not contradict either within in each period (e.g. the confusion of teen years: when Maud dresses as her lost sister, and is unsure what to make of her meetings with her sister’s husband, Frank, her possible attraction to him despite her suspicion and distrust of him), or between each period: the way Maud as a confused old person forgets from one moment to the next who her daughter is, near the end, and tries not to look at the bruises or pinch marks on her daughter’s body that she suspects in the back of her remaining mind, that she put there – indeed, the dealing with her very real violence and frustration is incredibly well done.  

There’s a brilliant way too of showing the internal reality of Maud for Maud, and then how she is perceived and treated by others on the outside.  The attitude of the policeman to whom she reports the missing Elizabeth 5 times; he seems so real and understandable, patronising and wryly humourous.  The only person, in fact, who treats Maud with any dignity is the woman in the local newspaper office, when she gets as far as attempting (and managing) to put an ad in the paper for help for finding her.  I felt entirely for the frustration of her tired daughter, dealing with the dropped and soiled clothes, the missed appointments, the terror of picking up your mother from the police station at 2 a.m. because she wandered again, the dealing with the repetitive phrases Maud keeps coming out with that seem to make no sense: “Where would you grow marrows?”  The mounting frustration and despair of her daughter is so clear and well done.  And again, since I’m equally identifying with that (having been a carer myself once and which I found horribly painful), I’m very surprised that I didn’t just fall into an over emotional pit and put the book down.  But it wasn’t written in such a way as to belabour the clearly emotional matter of its characters, at all.  Its possible to find much humour here, but you are always just smiling along, never laughing cruelly at anyone.  The misunderstandings between characters of sound mind, let alone the mentally suffering ones are just so real and common.

Actually, the comparisons I’d make, were I going to, are to Taichi YamadaHaruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro.  Especially Ishiguru’s The Unconsoled – a terribly difficult, brilliant and winding, ever winding book of story after story after story, each threading to the next and you keep waiting for a story or a line of character to become clear and it never does.  By the end, you’ve experienced something so close to actual real life, in that none of made sense and linked up properly at all, though it seemed to tangentially (and then thoroughly explains why we are so superstitious and make patterns from the oddest of things, because it’s so vital to us to feel that things do make some sort of sense), that you feel irritated at the lack of closure, yet in awe of the scope of the book.  I would say Elizabeth Is Missing manages both much more and still less closure, but makes sense more as it goes along, for all that the main character is almost totally lost and moreso, by the ending.  The reason for the inclusion of (the deeply underappreciated) Taichi Yamada here, is the perplexedness of his main protagonists, and the way I always fall for them utterly, identifying and rooting for them within a world that makes increasingly little sense.  (Why are not MORE of this man's excellent, haunting and spooky books in translation over here???  WHY?!)  In terms of Murakami, this is a novel of the every day and its details and the thoughts you think while living it; the strange things that pop out at you and the things that appear where they shouldn’t be, and turn out to be portentous or not.  It makes a drama of the nothing of our everyday lives.  Not melodrama, but drama.  There's a quote on the back from Jonathan Coe, saying the book is one of "those mythical beasts, the book you cannot put down", which indeed I did find it to be.  (If you want another, read Coe's own magnificently funny and terrifying book about a narcolepsy sufferer, House of Sleep.  That too is a masterpeice.)

I cannot recommend Elizabeth Is Missing highly enough.  I do not get how the author managed to not bore me when for the millionth time her character had no idea how she got somewhere, or lost something, or is looking at all her little remembering notes that don’t make sense as she’s forgotten what they are for…I do not get how that did not make me scream with frustration.  (Such excellent writing, when you cannot see how it was done!)  But it did not. I was just driven and so determined for valiant Maud, that she would resolve something.  That I felt it understandable when she picked up bits of rubbish from the street and tried to eat them; or when she tore the heads off flowers she used to love as a girl.  The gift of making sense of actions that appear inexplicable is a mastery of such empathy and fellow feeling that this book could almost be a gift to our modern age of selfishness and uncaring.  The increasing multitudes that fill the ranks of ‘them’ and not ‘us’, whoever the hell WE are, each one of us.  The way we are all subjected to little endless media tales of the scary hoardes of ‘others’, that come to take our things, our benefits, our houses, our lives.  The way those tales worm inside and make us afraid and defensive and not wanting to understand any ‘others’ anymore.

Next time I see a crazy old woman in the street, I won’t just cross over or feel afraid and disgusted that that is some sort of future mirror of myself, that I might catch this madness…I might just try to understand a bit more.

This book, with no apparent effort, is just leaking humanity and empathy. No emotional wrecking ball, just a bloody good story and an amazing set of supporting characters to go with the towering figure of little bent over Maud and her personal mystery.  It’s one of those books that does our world in small, but leaves you with a bigger picture.  No idea how she did it, Emma Healey is something of a genius.

Please go and read it. Really marvellous.  And amazingly enjoyable. 

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