June 13, 2014

Review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey for British Isles Friday

Maud slips and falls down some stairs.  She gets bruised. As she rests for a moment she recalls an incident from her childhood where a crazy old woman had hit her with an umbrella outside the grocer and left big bruises on her skin. Then she gets up and goes home, sure there will be bruises from the fall. The next morning, she hurts and she tells the caretaker who tells Maud's daughter, Helen.  Carla and Helen tell her not to call the doctor because they think it is just normal old people pains.  Apparently Maud has called the doctor 12 times in the last fortnight.  But Maud calls anyway.  

By the time the doctor gets there, Maud has no idea why he is there.  She doesn't remember calling him.  He tells her she called today and about the 12 other times where she called and nothing was wrong.  She thinks he must have her confused with someone else.  Why would she do that?  He does a brief examination of her pulse and pupils and ears but they are all fine so he leaves.  Her daughter touches her arm and Maud winces in pain. Helen discovers the bruises and apologizes for not believing her mother.  "How did you get these bruises, Mum?" she asks.  "It was an umbrella," I say, but really I can't remember."

This is everyday life for Maud - she can't remember she has to go to the bathroom.  She forgets what she wants to eat or if she already has a can of peaches at her house or needs more.  Yet, she is sure her friend Elizabeth is missing.  She hasn't seen or heard from her in days.  The phone rings and rings.  She isn't at home when she stops by.  She tries to tell Helen, but Helen thinks her mother just doesn't remember hearing from Elizabeth.  It's hard to make sure your friend is not in trouble when you can't even remember whether you've seen her or not. 

Maud's short term memory shorts out frequently, but her long-term memory is in tact.  She can recall even the minutest detail from a conversation that happened between her family and herself when she was young.  She can remember the incident with the lady hitting her with an umbrella.  But she can't remember if she has her house key, if she called the doctor, why she fell, and she gets lost constantly.

The memory of her past and the present begin to blur together more and more. Small moments in her present life take her back to her youth when her older sister, Sukey, went missing.  She remembers these events vividly and with great detail, only to suddenly be aware she is in the midst of boarding a bus in the present day with no idea where she is supposed to be going. The past and the present stories run parallel to each other and the comparisons between the two events are well-drawn but don't hit you over the head with it, either.  Both are equally intriguing story lines.

The book also has plenty of funny moments as Maud goes back and forth between moments of lucidity.  Like when Maud tells Carla (the caregiver, mind you) the next day about visiting Elizabeth's house, looking for her.  She is looking at the notes she wrote about it (Maud writes notes about everything since she forgets so easily.)  Carla proceeds to tell her these stories about how crack addicts broke into a house and had a lady tied up in the basement and the police didn't find them for days (yeah, great caregiving strategy, right?)  But she tells Maud not to go to Elizabeth's house.  "Write that down," she says.  Carla leaves and as Maud continues going over her notes she gets distracted by a letter from her son, then finds a note that reads, Elizabeth locked in room- crack addicts in house. Bound and tortured in basement. "I frown at my own writing.  I must be going barmy.  Crack addicts? The police would have been called. But, I think, why not go to the house anyway, check on Elizabeth?"

I don't know if Healey wrote the book this way intentionally or if it is a formatting issue with the e-galley (there's so many of those lately, it seems) but it was sometimes challenging to tell when Maud stopped living in the past and was brought back to the future or vice-versa. Jarring for the reader, but perhaps this was intentional as it would be jarring for Maud to experience.  I found it more of an issue in the beginning than I did later on in the book when I became familiar with the style.  It actually makes sense to write it this way, but it would be interesting to know if it was on purpose or a formatting issue.  

I really recommend this book.  It is a great character study without really any dull moments, even though there is not much action.  I hope you will give it a read!

Did you read  Elizabeth is Missing? What did you think of it?  

If you haven't read it, what do you think of the subject matter?  This was my first time reading about a person with Alzheimer's.

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