Nominated for the Bailey’s Prize longlist and winner of the Costa first novel award, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was the big publishing story of last year. The marketing campaign has been huge – piles of the book greet you at every bookshop door and even the front cover is as much a campaign as design, covered as it is in hyperbolic praise from established authors and newspaper critics.
The marketing push and the enticing cover lines all promise intrigue and an up-put-a-down-ableness so beloved of reviewers. You are going to love this book says everyone.
Only I didn’t.
Elizabeth is Missing has plenty of fans, particularly at Penguin who won a nine day bidding war to secure the rights, wooing Healy with handwritten notes from employees who loved the book (and, presumably, a nice fat advance).
I wanted to be one of those note-writing fans, mysteries with a benign old lady at the centre of them being right up my tweed-lined Marple street. But while Healey is clearly a talented writer who honed her skills on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA, her talents are no match for the overstretched plot she set herself.
Maud is a woman in her 80s who is suffering from dementia. The novel is narrated from her point of view which is clever, but difficult to pull off considering Maud has no short term memory so, um, how does she remember all the things that have happened? Of course this literary device helps enormously when her short-term memory loss allows Healey to be vague about things when she realises the plot isn’t quite slotting together.
Maud is convinced her friend Elizabeth has disappeared. Of course nobody believes her, including me (are we really meant to?), but her search for her friend stirs up painful memories of her sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946 and the two mysteries run in tandem throughout the novel. Maud’s obsession with her missing friend unravels the clues behind her sister’s disappearance and ultimately the two stories clunkily collide and lead to a (frustrating) conclusion. The way the two stories were fused was almost laughable cartoony at times – 82-year-old Maud seeing, say a, pub and being reminded “of the time I met Frank (Sukey’s husband) for a drink”, cue a return to 1946. I expected the page to wobble in front of my eyes.
The post-war story is by far the most interesting of the two tales, although annoyingly bity, just when it hits its grove, we were jolted back to the present day where Maud is repeating her Elizabeth is missing refrain and making another cup of tea that she’ll never drink.
That’s not to say present day Maud isn’t moving, but the one character I really thought Healey caught well was Helen, Maud’s daughter, her exasperation, sadness and fear seeping through the layers of Maud’s muddled mind onto the page and right off it again.
There’s a lot of heart behind Elizabeth is Missing, but the better story is Healey’s own fairytale from 16-year-old school leaver to celebrated author via five years of hard graft where she fitted in writing around her full-time job. Are we more lenient towards debut authors? Are we so impressed by their dedication that we mistake quite good novels for brilliant ones? Maybe (incidentally, Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which would have wiped the floor with the rest of the Costa first book award noms). Maybe in time Healey will write one as good as the marketing people told us Elizabeth is Missing is.
by Suzanne Elliott