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The Forgetful Sleuth

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey (Penguin, $37)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Elizabeth_Missing_Cover800We all make cups of tea we forget to drink. We all make lists. We even forget to take them with us to the shops. Maud’s lists are a bit different, but, like the rest of us, she remembers some things and not others. Not everyone is where they should be and things are not all as they seem, particularly for Maud, whose memory plays tricks on her – and on the reader.
Here she is, the main character and voice, in the present. Then again, she steps into the past to replay old scenes that may or may not connect to the here and now. The mysteries, both past and present, seem to be linked in Maud’s mind. Her ageing processes are sensitively shown through her thoughts and actions – and she’s very, very active. She’s the Miss Marple of her own mysteries and like that ageing woman, she won’t let sleeping dogs lie.

Elizabeth is indeed missing. And she’s not the only missing person. The mysteries are not Maud’s alone; they become our mysteries and compelling to solve through reading on. Second-guessing won’t get you very far, dear reader, but it’s worth the journey through the entwined forest of events – and of Maud’s mind. Parents always embarrass their children, and Maud’s daughter Helen is certainly embarrassed by her insistent mother.
This is the first book from London-raised Emma Healey (a former bookbinder and recent Master’s graduate of the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme) and I hope there’ll be more. The writing is superb. Cunning segues between past and present, which slide back and forth across each other as smoothly as well-hung sliding doors, mean Maud’s inadvertent journeys through her looking glass, controlled by an invisible switch in her ageing brain, conjure up such reality that you can smell the spiced apples stewing and hear the lodger’s footsteps, “light and uneven”, descending the stairs.
Healey’s novel differs from other recent novels about ageing women, such as Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side and Penelope Lively’s How It All Began. Maybe partly because this author is 28 years old – closer in age to Maud’s teenage granddaughter, the character most accepting of Maud’s idiosyncrasies. Not surprising to discover the author says: “it’s such a personal book, inspired by my grandparents.”
It’s a compelling read, but maybe not the best present for an elderly grandparent’s birthday.