Crime Scene: EMMA HEALEY Elizabeth is Missing. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
A crime has been committed and Maud knows this – but what was it? She can’t remember.
Eighty-two-year-old Maud Horsham is losing her memory. But some things are firmly stuck in her mind – the most important being that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She knows this because she keeps finding notes, aides-memoire, that tell her so. Maud goes to Elizabeth’s house to find it deserted, asks everyone she sees if they know where she might be and reports her friend’s disappearance to the police. Then she forgets she has done these things and does them all again, many times. Finally she puts an advertisement in the newspaper.
She also has an obsession with marrows and where to plant them. She asks her gardener daughter Helen about this repeatedly. ‘I got to know Elizabeth because of some marrows,’ she says.
Other things that have lodged immovably in her failing mind date from her childhood: the madwoman with the umbrella, her long-lost sister’s ornamental hair comb and the finding of some broken vinyl records. More recently, there is the discovery of the lid of an old powder compact:
I’ve missed this tiny thing for nearly seventy years. And now the earth, made sludgy and chewable with the melting snow, has spat out a relic. Spat it into my hand. But where from? That’s what I can’t discover. Where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal?
An ancient noise, like a fox bark, makes an attempt at the edges of my brain. ‘Elizabeth?’ I ask. ‘Did you ever grow marrows?’
Maud clearly remembers whole sequences of events from her young life, if not not always consecutively, but her present is increasingly a mystery to her. She forgets people – often not recognising her carer, her daughter or her grand-daughter Katy. She has dozens of little notes to remind herself, but she doesn’t always recall what they mean:
There are bits of paper all over the house, lying in piles or stuck up on different surfaces. Scribbled shopping lists and recipes, telephone numbers and appointments, notes about things that have already happened. My paper memory. It’s supposed to stop me forgetting things. But my daughter tells me I lose the notes. I have that written down, too.
Carly, the carer, has a gruesome fixation with stories about the terrible things that can happen to old women living alone and these insinuate themselves into Maud’s faulty recollections, adding to her confusion and fear. One of the notes (in her own handwriting) reads, ‘Crack addict. Elizabeth locked in her room. Bound in basement‘. This is doubly bewildering – she does remember that Elizabeth hasn’t got a basement. ‘No more peach slices’ is clearer, though Maud continues to buy them on her forbidden trips to the shop.
The novel is told from Maud’s first-person point of view, in the present tense, a particularly appropriate choice here, because the reader must try to reassemble the scattered mosaic pieces of Maud’s memory at the same time as she struggles to make sense of what it is that really worries her. It’s also clever as it manages to prevent us from knowing what has actually happened to Elizabeth until the very end and it muddies the waters in terms of whether or not a crime has been committed, and if so, what? And when? This is a contrivance, certainly, but one that the author brings off beautifully.
There are really two possible crimes here – what might have happened to Elizabeth and the fact that nearly 70 years ago Maud’s sister Sukey went missing. Many of her clearer memories are from around that time. She remembers the family’s lodger, Douglas, who was probably having an affair with Sukey, and Sukey’s husband Frank, a black marketeer who once asked Maud to marry him. She remembers lots of other details, but in her jumbled mind they take time to coalesce.
As much as it is a crime novel, and a very fine one, this is a lovingly executed portrait of old age and dementia. It is often funny, in a poignant way, as when Maud goes to place her advertisement in The Echo and is easily persuaded for a while that she is searching for a lost cat. It also wryly describes the assumed vexations of the demented:
Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately … I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles … But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad … I’m tired of the little sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say … I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead.
Maud occasionally rages against the dying of the light – in her frustration she breaks plates, throws cups and pinches Helen until she is badly bruised – but she is increasingly muddled and helpless, and she realises that.
The novel is beautifully written and lush descriptions abound:
The greenhouse surrounds the kitchen door and I remember when it was full of tomato plants, seedlings or wintering geraniums. It still smells of damp soil and wood stain, but almost everything has been replaced by cobwebs and boxes and old-people paraphernalia: a rusty wheelchair, two walking sticks and an old bath seat … The desiccated remains of roots cling to my fingers, like tiny strips of old wallpaper, leaving white lines on the terracotta.
This is a slow-paced story, with carefully observed depictions of Maud’s daily life – as far as she remembers it – allowing the reader room to enjoy the prose and the finely drawn characterisations. Its tone, humour and the way it plays with time are reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, but the book that kept coming to my mind while reading Elizabeth is Missing was Norwegian by Night, by Derek B Miller, another crime novel that offered a perceptive and sympathetic glimpse into the world of the elderly and misunderstood who somehow get it right.
Elizabeth is Missing is definitely one of the best and most original crime novels I’ve read this year.
Emma Healey Elizabeth is Missing Viking 2014 PB 288pp $29.99
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