And now another late post for Laura's lovely Year in Books link up. This month I have been reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, a best-selling first book by an unknown author. I'm slightly curious about how she, a 20-something student, managed to be in a position where she was given a huge advance for a book and had nine publishers competing for it. How did she get their attention in the first place, when many successful authors, including J K Rowling, are rejected at first? Did someone spot her when she was doing the Creative Writing MA at UEA?
What is different about this book is that she gets into the head of Maud, her central character, who has dementia, and writes a convincing account of life and events from her point of view. My mother-in-law had dementia in her final years and much of Maud's behaviour is familiar: leaving the gas on; going out at odd times; attempts to continue with routine activities like cooking and shopping but getting in a muddle about it. My aunt, who suffered from dementia, once tried to make a ham sandwich for her son with the blood-soaked absorbent paper at the bottom of a plastic supermarket meat tray: she still saw it as her job to feed her family even after the roles had reversed.
What Healey does so well is to show that for Maud, her actions, which frustrate and baffle others, are actually entirely logical in her mind. She confuses past and present all the time. Her friend Elizabeth is 'missing'. She's actually in hospital, but Maud, who is in English Lit teaching terms, an 'unreliable narrator' never grasps this. Maud confuses the fact that Elizabeth is missing with the disappearance of her sister Sukey in the post-war years, an event that Maud is able to remember in vivid detail. This means that we, as readers, can understand why Maud says something about Elizabeth which seems ridiculous to her daughter, as we know she is referring to Sukey. What is also well observed is the reaction of her daughter Helen: Maud notices her eye-rolling and her desire to get away. This reminds me so much about how we were with my mother-in-law and I feel ashamed. It seems that Healey drew on her own family's experience with her grandmother to write the book. It must be slightly uncomfortable reading for her mother, if Helen is based on her.
I discussed this novel at my bookclub and one member, who works with dementia patients, says it is a very accurate portrayal of the condition. And that is what it is - very well written and original book. Did I enjoy it? Yes, though I preferred the next one I read more Colm Toibin's Nora Webster. But more of that another time.
My next book was recommended to me by Annet, the teacher I stayed with in the Netherlands. She gave me a battered paperback school copy. It's The Music of Chance by Paul Auster.