Author: Emma Healey
Finished on: 14 January 2017
Where did I get this book: After all my good intentions to read only those books already on my shelves in 2017, I seem to have accidentally joined a book club. This is my first read with them.
I used to volunteer as a befriender with Age UK. Once a week I would take out an amazing lady called Agnes for a cup of tea and a chat, with my daughter and then with my baby son too after he was born. Agnes was in her nineties, and had severe dementia. She was one of the most kind-hearted and funny ladies I have ever had the privilege to be friends with. But she never remembered me, or the children. Every time we saw her it was like the first time. She would tell us the same stories many times (we didn’t mind, she had good stories – including about the time she spent working in a Sheffield munitions factories as a crane driver when she was a teenager during the war). We had a lovely time. People with dementia and young children have a lot in common. You can’t talk about what you had for dinner or watched on TV last night. You can talk about what you can see out of the window right now.
And with old people with dementia, you can talk about their childhoods and early life. Dementia is a condition that takes your most recent memories first, gradually unstacking a lifetime in reverse chronological order.
Our protagonist in Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud, is moving through the earlier stages of dementia. Her condition has not progressed as far as my beloved Agnes’s had. Maud’s understanding of the world around her comes and gos, and she is conscious of her short-term memories slipping away. Which makes for almost unbearably sad, and frightening, reading. One of the most poignant moments in the whole book is when Maud goes for coffee with her granddaughter Katy. As Katy orders their drinks at the counter, Maud daren’t take her eyes off her in case she forgets who her granddaughter is while looking elsewhere. Heartbreaking.
It is about time there was a bestseller about dementia. As a condition, it is on the increase, with surprisingly little understanding amongst the general population of how it affects people. Healey draws a detailed and convincing portrait of Maud as she struggles to piece together what is happening to her from one moment to the next. Why she has mud on her hands; why she has a bruise on her arm; why she can’t stop thinking about marrows or her good friend Elizabeth. The book is at its strongest on the mundane; the everyday challenges and the relationships between Maud and her increasingly frustrated and long-suffering daughter Helen, and the rest of her family.
The plot in which Healey places Maud is a good one; it’s a clever way to illustrate the impact that dementia has. A mystery from the present and a mystery from the past, all swimming around in a mind that is disintegrating. But that’s the trouble. It feels like she’s placed a fully-rounded character into a convenient plot. Like the plot is a vehicle for communicating Maud’s condition. She doesn’t hide the wiring.
I almost wish Healey had had the courage to explore Maud’s situation without the drama of a big, exciting mystery to solve. And this is me, who usually gets fed up with a story if people aren’t drawing treasure maps in blood into the lining of their hats.
One unfortunate side effect of reading a book about dementia is that you start to feel like you have it. A bit like when you leave the cinema after watching a James Bond film and drive home faster than you normally would, imagining yourself in an Aston on a winding Alpine road (even if you’re in a Skoda on the A57 out of Sheffield). I don’t know if I was more forgetful while reading this, or just took more notice when I was forgetful. This is testament to the immersive quality of Healey’s depiction of Maud. But it is scary stuff. I must go away and read all the books on my shelves about highly intelligent people with fully-functioning brains now.