Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

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

Book Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

The Innocent by Francesca Segal

The Innocent by Francesca Segal

The Innocents, Francesca Sega’s Costa Book Award winning debut novel is an absorbing, deceptively thoughtful and considered modern re-working of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence.

Shamefully, I’ve never read The Age Of Innocence, Wharton’s tale of scandal among the 19th century New York upper classes, so I came to The Innocents with no expectations. Segal has moved the Upper West Side to North London’s leafy suburbs and the large, liberal, yet morally rigid family-focused Jewish community that spills from the epicentre of London’s NW11.

Setting The Innocents in a tight-knit community with a strict moral code enables Segal to translate the storyline to modern times without it looking like a square 21st century peg in a stuffy 19th century round hole. Segal handles the transitions of era, country and changing values largely with aplomb and dexterity. There are a few times when the original story doesn’t quite fit the modern mould, but Wharton’s story of what it means to love (mostly) seamlessly slots into Segal’s newly realised narrative. As one character – an Eastend hipster no less – points out, maybe our inbuilt human code of right and wrong has nothing to do with culture or century; being kind isn’t the same thing as being conservative and conventional.

The story spins around Adam Newhouse, a strapping 6ft 2″ seemingly faultless Jewish boy with a flat in Primrose Hill and a beautiful fiancee, his childhood sweetheart Rachel. Everyone is super-dopey happy at the beginning of the novel, so naturally we need a villain to shake them out of this revelry.

Enter stage left; Rachel’s cousin Ellie who just happens to be a long-limbed model with a notorious past. Adam, despite himself, soon becomes infatuated by this glamorous creature, who – ta-da! – reads Dickens and loves her grandmother. Fortunately she has a dead mother and an absent father to take the edge off her perfection and allow her some misery points. (I think Ellie’s beauty, a hangover from The Age Of Innocence’s heroine Ellen Olenska, was a distraction, it made Adam’s longing for her look more like a teenage boy’s lust for a Loaded centrefold than a genuine, gut-wrenching love. Still people do risk a great deal for beauty).

Not only is Ellie super hot and always in sexily, disheveled, revealing clothes, she is way more fun than snooze-fest Rachel, whose interests extend as far as gossip magazines and making brownies for her man. Rachel, like many of the characters in the novel is both a stereotype and all too real; she’s insipid and vapid and completely disinterested in anything outside of her tiny, secure world. Only at the end, after going over a few of life’s speed bumps, does she become a little more tolerable.

From their testy first meeting, Ellie and Adam are poised on the precipice of a kingsize bed, but their story isn’t so simple, Segal is always one step ahead.

The Innocents may read like a straight-forward love triangle saga on, er, paper, but like Ellie, it’s far deeper and cleverer than I first gave it credit for. There’s layers of truth and astute observations among the everyday chatter of the Jewish matriarchs and the cheerful banter at feast day dinner tables. I live within a bagels throw of Adam and Rachel and their close-knit community, but I know little about it. Segal drew this world very evocatively and drew me into a community that knows great tragedy as well as great love. Despite the claustrophobia that crept up on me at the thought of being surrounded by people who could almost read my mind, the loyalty and the warmth and the protectiveness that emanated from the pages made me feel part of the family.

There were times when The Innocents was, like the average family, infuriating, and it did outstay its welcome by a few pages, but The Innocents is a stylish and elegant in its study of human nature and love.

by Suzanne Elliott