Every year, there’s a crime book that creates a buzz before it is even published. Last year it was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls; this year it is Elizabeth is Missing by debut novelist Emma Healey – and while I was a tad disappointed by the former, I’ve been blown away by a book that already looks destined for my top five reads of 2014.
This is a detective story like no other, with a unique protagonist. Meet Maud. She is in her 80s and struggling to cope with her increasingly dodgy memory. Maud might not always recognise her own daughter but she is certain of two things: she has a friend called Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is missing.
Maud lives alone, with daily visits from her carers and long-suffering gardener daughter Helen. She is not supposed to cook for herself or leave the house alone, and her love of toast borders upon obsession. There are notices pinned up all over the house to remind her of what she mustn’t do. ‘Don’t cook’, ‘lock the door’ and ‘no toast’ are just three, but Maud isn’t about to take any heed of them. After all, her best friend hasn’t been seen for weeks, so she sets about finding the elusive Elizabeth, taking copious notes of her discoveries – notes which she promptly forgets about and later puzzles over.
In her coherent moments, Maud tries her best to find her lost friend, by visiting the police station and even putting an advert in the local paper. Elizabeth’s son is no help at all and seems to be hiding something from Maud. He is also systematically emptying Elizabeth’s house of her treasures. Clearly, this is a man not to be trusted and Maud immediately makes a note of the fact.
Woven through Maud’s present day quest is another tale set in a very different era. It is just after World War II and rationing is biting deep. As a teenager Maud queues for precious items on her mother’s behalf in a time of ‘make do and mend’. But the family’s meagre supplies are supplemented by black market items from Frank, the wide-boy husband of Maud’s elder sister, Sukey. He is well-regarded by his neighbours but has his finger in any number of nefarious dealings. Maud’s Dad can’t stand his son-in-law, and when Sukie mysteriously vanishes, he is sure that Frank is behind it.
His suspicions are backed up by Douglas, the family lodger who moved in after his home was destroyed by a bomb, killing his mother and leaving him orphaned. He holds a candle for Sukey and doesn’t have a good word to say for her errant husband. Maud hopes her sister has just run away, but when her packed suitcase is found in an empty hotel room the family is forced to prepare for the worst.
The stories are skilfully woven together as Maud struggles to separate the past from the present and gets herself into all manner of scrapes. Prepare for shouts of laughter and gulps of bitten-back tears as the writer conjures up a bittersweet and wholly realistic portrait of a family struggling with the onset of dementia. Elizabeth is Missing has been fought over by publishers and the TV rights to the story have already been sold. I’m not surprised. This is a book in a thousand, a psychological thriller that will keep you riveted from beginning to end.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars