Elizabeth was Missing was the Costa Coffee first novel category winner back in 2014, when I first added it to my ‘To read’ list.
It centers around an elderly woman in the midst of dementia, and deals with the dual narrative of her present day life adjusting to the loss of her memory and the disappearance of her friend Elizabeth, whom Maud believes has gone missing. Simultaneously, we contend with Maud’s past memories, set in post-war Britain where young girl Maud copes with the loss of her recently married sister, Sukey.
The issues start for Maud where, due to her dementia, she perpetually confuses the past and present disappearances; with her short-term memory problems leading her over the same ground in her search for Elizabeth, Maud is not able to differentiate the pattern of events behind Elizabeth’s disappearance and Sukey’s. Maud constantly writes notes to herself to ‘remind’ herself of her progress, and in her confusion of the events of both circumstances, unwittingly recalls historical facts that lead to the solution of a decades-old crime – the murder of her sister.
One thing that I really enjoyed about this story was Maud’s determination to solve the disappearance of Elizabeth. Despite not being listened to by multiple people, she continued to seek answers, and in the end received answers to questions she had been asking for years.
I am simultaneously fascinated and terrified of dementia, and there were genuine moments in the novel where I both empathized and pitied Maud’s narrative. The use of first person made it difficult to follow, as her unreliable narrative showed just how devastating it can be to all involved with dementia sufferers. In Maud we have someone who cannot remember what has happened, even from a couple of minutes earlier, and who relies on notes to remind her of important information – which in turn she cannot remember writing. The repeated buying of peaches and Maud losing her way home particularly touched me, as did her daughters struggle to look after her ever-failing mother.
At first I did struggle to understand the novel because Maud kept confusing the timelines, but as both plots begin to unravel it began to get easier to see what was happening. I found it particularly clever how there were repeated motifs in both the past and present events; marrows, soil, lipstick and post-war records being some of the more subtle links between each event.
There are also some extremely penetrating insights into how it might feel to have dementia; to have your intelligence intact but continually face that ‘struggle’ to communicate your ideas with a dismissive world. We see this frequently throughout the story, where both young and elderly Maud fails to make those closest to her hear her thoughts and worries.
I found this novel highly enjoyable, and especially commend the mammoth task of combining a traditional murder mystery with a woman in the midst of dementia. Even though there were clear plot holes and the ending was a little contrite, it was a highly enjoyable read and definitely an author that I will keep an eye on for future releases.