“Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Read in: June 2014
Edition and format: Penguin UK 2014/digital advance review copy
First published: June 2014


Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

First of all, I’d like to thank the lovely people at Penguin for my advance review copy received via NetGalley.

It is always an immense pleasure (in every possible meaning of the word: from instinctively animalistic, to casually mundane, to Barthesian) to see a brilliant idea brought to flawless execution in literature.
Let us do away with the adjectives of praise – at the risk of their sounding trivial and faded – “Elizabeth is Missing” is an insanely intelligent, poignant, and enchanting book.
Admittedly, the text requires a careful, close perusal and honest, concentrated efforts on the part of the reader in order to unveil the many precious subtleties and layers and lead to a better understanding, and so may prove a bit of a challenging read in that respect. However, the dedication and patience are well rewarded, and isn’t that one of the greatest things about reading?

The idea is that of a mystery spanning across decades, interlaced with a more recent burning question that troubles the mind of our unforgettable narrator, Maud. Here, in my humble opinion, lies the answer to what makes this book so unique and appealing. Maud’s voice feels painfully genuine and realistic, her interactions with her surroundings so rich in sensuous quality, that the reader soon forgets at what point they ceased to be a mere observer and became a highly sensitive, alert, throbbing little bit of tissue behind Maud’s eyes.

An interchange of two timelines, or, more accurately, two types of fragments soon begins, both narrated by Maud in the first person; one is an account of her present-day antics, told in the present tense, the other an assortment of episodes, flashbacks of her life as a girl during WWII, narrated very neatly in the past tense. The two are always helpfully separated by a line of blank space, and yet they don’t really feel like separate fragments, in spite of the striking contrast between them, which I will detail presently. The transitions occur with a mesmerising fluidity, often triggered by a tiny detail that jogs Maud’s memory, so that they seem like identical beads on the same necklace, the only difference in the colours that alternate. Especially haunting are the frequent references to Tenysson’s “Come Into the Garden, Maud”, the full implications of which are enough to send shivers down one’s spine, in time.

The present-tense narrative is dominated by the search for Elizabeth, and the mastery of the writing here is that the progression of the plot (i.e. the search for clues) is hindered by Maud’s condition, which is in turn reflected in the ever-more-frequent blurs and blanks in the narrative itself, as our heroine struggles to remember. We witness the worsening of her condition very intimately, as the text itself spirals into decay and the past-tense episodes become more and more frequent. The past is taking over and the past seems to be the key. Those memories are narrated in a rather clean-cut, matter-of-fact way, relative to the present-tense narrative, and so appear to be the only reliable clues. As the novel progresses, those memories permeate Maud’s present-day life, each time with a renewed vehemence, and get jumbled up in the process. But will she be able to untangle them enough to find answers?

Clever, funny, sad…perfectly satisfying while at the same time generating a stomach-churning emotional struggle, heartwarming and heartbreaking…a beautiful, beautiful book!

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