Penguin (1 Jan. 2015)
I’m blaming dismal cold and wet weather on my grumpy reading mood. I have never suffered mediocre books gladly. I do not hesitate to throw dull books aside with such force they dent the walls. The older I grow, the less latitude I’m willing to give as time grows shorter.
Reviewing books more than fifteen years has accustomed me to high quality prose, spoiling me in receiving these books for free, so when I splash out with my own funds I expect they’ll meet or surpass my best hopes. The last two books I’ve read have not quite hit the mark.
This makes me very, very irritable.
Before I get into the first book, let me qualify it’s not a failure, per se. My mood is sour today because the second book, finished less than an hour ago, was just such a read. Worse, I paid for it in hardback, not a cheap secondhand copy. The first missed the mark with me, but by no means is it not worth the read.
Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.
But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.
Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.
Everyone, except Maud . . .
Books with unreliable narrators, especially involving memory gaps, grab my attention. Coupled with the premise of the mystery, I needed this novel as soon as the seller could ship. The “Costa Winner 2014” sticker slapped on the cover sealed it.
As a young girl, Maud’s life is ripped apart when her glamorous and beautiful older sister Sukey (Susan) disappears under menacing circumstances. A young wife with a husband home from war, her life appears content from the outside – until Maud and her father begin exploring further. Her husband Frank, neighbors and the police revealed, was both volatile and involved in shady black market dealings in rationed goods. Seen leaving the house in the middle of the night carrying a suitcase, his story was Sukey was being menaced by a mad woman well known in town, a woman driven out of her mind by the death of a daughter who’d been run over by a bus.
But where had she gone, and why had she not gotten in contact with her family?
Told in alternating narrative, Healey follows the young Maud’s traumatic loss of Sukey, then skips to modern day when she’s grown old, rapidly losing her mind. Despite both a carer and her daughter Helen checking in twice a day, Maud manages to slip out of the house and get herself into scrapes. There are silly things like constantly buying sliced peaches when she already has a cupboard full, to, more seriously, getting lost and dangerously muddled. Over and over, she takes the short walk to Elizabeth’s house, knocking on doors and peeking in windows. As the house grows emptier, so does her suspicion.
Maud keeps notes in pockets and drawers, desperate to keep a grasp, but disjointed words and phrases rarely make sense when found again. There are just two things for certain: buried inside her head is the answer to Sukey’s fate, and her only friend, Elizabeth, is missing.
With Elizabeth, the elderly Maud shared adventures and companionship. Less well cared for, Elizabeth appreciated both Maud’s company and the treats she brought. Together they enjoyed outings to local charity shops, buying cheap knick-knacks that gave them pleasure. In these brief moments, both felt the burdens of old age slipping off their shoulders. Then, suddenly, Elizabeth herself seemed to disappear, the jolt triggering Maud’s memories of her sister’s unresolved mystery 70 years earlier.
Maud began searching as well as she could, repeating ad nauseum to anyone who’d listen, “Elizabeth is missing”. The more she uttered it, the less anyone took notice. She was a silly, demented old woman who spouted random memories and fancies.
For most of the book I was riveted. Healey did a magnificent job getting inside the head of a very muddled elderly woman. It felt authentic, the desperation and frustration of Maud, her daily life and slipping away from reality. Not having dealt with the situation first-hand, the descriptions felt real.
My quibble is perhaps minimal but nonetheless interfered with my complete absorption in the book. If my daughter went missing I’d be absolutely frantic. While the family was concerned, I was never convinced this was an all-consuming, desperate event. They did a perfunctory search, talking with neighbors and trying to gather clues, but I never felt in my gut this was a major upheaval in their lives. I never felt the immediacy.
Then, none of the characters were fully fleshed out as Maud. Realizing the story’s told through her eyes, not often grounded in reality, I still felt it came up a bit short. The challenges in conveying characters seen through a clouded lens are huge, but I missed that. What Healey does well she does very, very well. What she left out continues to niggle at me, perhaps more than it should.
Still, I recommend the book. Maud’s story is heartbreaking, the twin mysteries compelling. The approach of winter seems an appropriate time to add this one to your reading list. If you do, or have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. Tell me I’m overly particular if you wish, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t find something to love about it.