Maude is in her 80s and has dementia, and as well as the story arc about her illness, there are also threads following two unsolved mysteries, one in the present day concerning the whereabouts of her friend Elizabeth, and one in the 1940s when her sister disappeared. We are told the story from Maude's perspective, which is a really insightful way of conveying what the experience of dementia is like to the reader. It's a running narrative of what Maude is thinking and doing, which means that the story jumps around a lot, with hops back in time to the 1940s, and some gaps in the timeline. I found some scenes incredibly poignant, especially where Maude is unable to articulate how she is feeling. The period details are excellent, and have obviously been well researched, so that the flashbacks really do have the 'feel' of the 1940s.
There's been some criticism of the 'believability' of the book by some experts working in the field of dementia, but I personally found it very believable. There has to be some degree of creative licence to make the book work as a novel - it's a narrative, not the diary of a person with dementia. It isn't meant to even be a story written or somehow spoken by the character with dementia. It's the writer attempting to get inside the mind of the main character, and it's therefore a fusion of their own creative descriptions (which are really lovely in places) and their best guess at what it must be like in that moment to be Maude. If it was a diary or a blow-to-blow account of mental processes alone, then it would be unreadable. The vocabulary wouldn't be there, and without memory to hold together strands of the story, it wouldn't make any sense. I think Healey has done an admirable job, and it's not to apply scientific scrutiny to something that's an artistic work - she's captured so many facets of the dementia experience that if a few things aren't quite accurate, I'm willing to let those go.
'Elizabeth is Missing' is a wonderfully, sometimes painfully, accurate representation of someone with dementia and the impact on not just them but their families too. We're not given any technical details, so we don't know if it's alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, or how long the symptoms have been going on and whether Maude was aware of the onset of the dementia and its implications.
I loved this book. The writing is good, and I liked Maude - I laughed with her, and felt such empathy for her throughout. The parallel mysteries also give the story some coherence, which is a good device against the disjointed nature of following Maude's viewpoint.
Finally, I'd like to put my mental health hat on for a moment, and say that if you think yourself or someone you know may have dementia, get along to your GP as soon as you can. More can be done with an earlier diagnosis, and there's a wealth of support available from charities such as Alzheimer's Research UK. A good starting point for information is the NHS site here.
If you like books set in the 1940s, you might also like to read my reviews of The Rice Paper Diaries, and Resistance.
Elizabeth Is Missing is published by Penguin and out now. I borrowed my copy from the library (which has been saved after a protest against cuts - I was there, waving my book!!). All views are my own.