Monthly Archive for July, 2015

Remembrance of things past

Our July book was Emma Healy’s accomplished debut novel ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, and what a spectacular choice this was. A few of us felt predisposed to dislike the book based on its premise of a mystery told from the point of view of an old woman suffering from dementia. How wrong we were as the novel delighted the majority of us on so many levels.

Maud is our ageing protagonist who tells everyone at every possible opportunity that ‘Elizabeth is missing’, often disconcerting them in the process. She lives in her own home, cared for by a frazzled daughter who runs her own landscaping business, and who vacillates between great care and sympathy and snapping with frustration, insisting Maud writes instructions on post-it notes which are plastered on every surface in the house to aid her failing memory. These notes spill over into other aspects of Maud’s life, filling her pockets as reminders, including what she needs to remember and record about her friend Elizabeth whose house she frequently visits to discover what has happened to her as Maud can no longer find her there.

What becomes clear at the beginning of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ is that there’s another, more profound and disturbing mystery in Maud’s background; that of her older sister Sukey, married to the jealous DSCF0647and controlling but entirely charming Frank, who disappeared without trace in post-war London. Maud and her older sister were close, and the story flits between the present day and flashbacks to Forties London, where Maud’s increasingly desperate parents spend more and longer periods away from their teenage daughter, leaving her to fend for herself while they try to find out what has happened to the missing Sukey. Other characters are part of this mystery; the family lodger Douglas who had a strong attraction for and friendship with Sukey, and the mad-woman living in the street who frightened the young Maud with her intensity and unpredictable violent outburts.

What intrigued some of us annoyed others. I found Maud’s thoughts and ramblings to be an authentic voice of a dementing person, and loved the way Healy embarks on complicated descriptions of everyday items that Maud uses but which she has forgotten the name of. I also found it particularly apt and poignant when Maud becomes frustrated and loses her temper, something that dementia sufferers experience as they lose their ability to communicate and retain their dignity. Maud is funny too in her increasing rebellion against her worn-out daughter’s attempts to stifle her insistence on telling everyone, including Elizabeth’s own son, that ‘Elizabeth is missing’, and we loved the patience and good humour of her grand-daughter as a response to her grand-mother’s dementing state.

Some readers weren’t entirely convinced by Maud’s ability to find her way around with such ease, photodespite her obvious memory loss; managing to find her way to Elizabeth’s house and putting an advert in a newspaper to find her missing friend. Others, however, found these actions entirely convincing, as it becomes clear that Maud is conflating the unresolved mystery of her sister’s disappearance 70 years previously, with that of her friend Elizabeth. Memories so powerful flood back that Maud is driven forward, despite her confusion and albeit joltingly, to compel her daughter to help her solve the mystery of her sister Sukey’s disappearance, with a resolution that is very close to her friend Elizabeth’s home.

 

We take a break from discussing books in August, and here’s our collective Summer Reading list for 2015:

The Outcast – Sadie Jones

Our Souls at Night – Kent Harav

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simpson

Herring Girl – Debbie Taylor

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

We Are All Related – Mitakuye Oyasin

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Lives of Girls and Women -Alice Munro

The Children Act – Ian McKewan

The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant

Are we related: The Granta book of the family, edited by Liz Jobey.

 

See you on Monday 14 September when we’ll discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’.

Happy summer reading

 

Rachel Orange