Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Monday, June 16, 2014

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In this darkly riveting debut novel-a sophisticated psychological mystery that is also an heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging-an elderly woman descending into dementia embarks on a desperate quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared, and her search for the truth will go back decades and have shattering consequences. Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory-and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

But no one will listen to Maud-not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth's mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend. This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud's rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II. As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey's disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth? (from Goodreads)

The first fifty pages of this book upset me - so much so that I put it down for almost two months and only came back to it when I needed something to read while on vacation. Now that I've finished the book and loved it, I think I know why those first fifty pages bothered me so much. 

They were too effective. 

Healey delves into the deteroriating mind of an old woman so convincingly that it all felt too real, too frightening and that - of course - is the sign of a successful thriller. 

But Elizabeth is Missing is so much more than a suspense novel with a good hook. It's a chance to step into someone else's shoes and understand their world, a world that horrifies our youth-obsessed, constantly on the move society. This world is terrifying because Healey renders it such rich detail and because it is the fate that ultimately we'll all share - growing old and losing our grasp on time and the memories that make us who we are. I would rather read a thriller about this than any serial killer or detective novel out there. 

The narrative follows the twists and turns of Maud's mind, switching back and forth between the current day and post-WWII Britain, a world of bombed-out buildings and ration books. There was so much to like about Elizabeth is Missing that it would be easy to overlook this brilliant rendering of an exhausted Britain and the price of victory exacted on average citizens. It's a rarely-used time and setting in historical fiction and it was a perfect setting for a story of fear and suspicion. 

I won't say too much about the current day storyline as I don't want to give away the ending but I was very happy to see that Healey did not resort to any cheap narrative twists and turns. The focus is always on Maud and the overall themes of loss and the passage of time. 

I would highly recommend this book to all readers - it's going on my end of year list as one of my favorites! 

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair review. 


52booksorbust said...

I know what you mean about having to put the book down. I just finished it last night. Healey does such a great job of getting inside of Maud's head. It was hard to read, but so worth it in the end. Can you believe that Healey is only 28?

Historical Fiction Notebook said...

It's just an unbelievably good novel and would be a triumph for an author of any age - but only 28? That's just crazy! I will definitely be looking for her next novel.

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