Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

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.

 

Amazon:

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.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’

Sir Walter Scott Prize Shortlist read # 2 – Days Without End

My distraction throughout the reading of Barry’s book is no reflection on it, nor its quality. The same happened when I read Graham Swift’s Walter Scott-nominated Mothering Sunday, though in reading back through a second time I was moved by its beauty.

The inability to fully fall into Days Without End is about my current life situation. There’s not even the slightest correlation with the book itself.

Sebastian Barry has been one of my favorite writers for years. If you search through my posts you’ll find many a review, an interview, and accounts of author events during which I met and heard him speak. I own a few Barry novels personally inscribed to me, with my usual odd inscription requests. Sebastian Barry is a very good sport. He’s also, in my opinion, the finest Irish novelist alive today. Biased, but true. Biased because it’s true.

DISCLAIMER:  a few years ago I exchanged a few emails with Sebastian Barry about the heavy Irish influence on the literature of the American South, even sent him a book on that specific topic as well as my favorite book by William Faulkner. While I don’t consider this review compromised as a result – because I’m a reviewer who strives to avoid bias – I must disclose my potential relationship, however tenuous, with this novel.

We’re stopped in our charge and kneel and load and fire. We kneel and load and fire at the side-on millipede of the enemy. Our batteries belch forth their bombs again and the Confederates balk like a huge herd of wild horses and run back ten yards and then ten yards reversed again … A frantic weariness infects our bones. We load and fire, load and fire … Then with a great bloom like a sudden infection of spring flowers the meadow becomes a strange carpet of flames. The grass has caught fire and is generously burning and adding burning to burning. So dry it cannot flame fast enough, so high that the blades combust in great tufts and wash the legs of the fleeing soldiers not with soft grasses but dark flames full of roaring strength … The quiet are in their black folds of death.

  • Days Without End

Barry’s latest novel is an anomaly. Rather than an Irish setting, he’s chosen the American South during the period of the Civil War. His main characters are two cross-dressing men (initially forced into the situation for reasons of survival, when they were paid to act as females hired to dance with miners in the American West) whose relationship hints at homosexuality (see video below re: Barry’s youngest son, whose coming out inspired this novel’s main characters). The two are drafted young, become brave fighters, and are humane and kind men who adopt a young Indian girl to save her.

The style of the book is, trite as it sounds – and I hate using this term – Faulkner-esque. Native to the great American writer’s “postage stamp of soil,” an admirer of his works, I can say that from the standpoint of, if not expertise, at least familiarity. His characters are huge, larger than life. The prose, after a not quite typically lyrical Barry beginning, takes off and soars toward the middle and does not relent through to the end. It flows into a gentle stream of consciousness at times, particularly in the battle scenes. Like Faulkner, Barry does not shy away from issues of grave injustice and inhumanity inflicted by whites on the indigenous and black races.

 

We taste in our mouths the terror of this place like it were bread of a kind … You got to stop your hands gripping your musket so tight you strangling it. Try to breathe easy and pray the moon won’t show. All the black night we think our private thoughts and then at dawn light touches everything in its kingdom. Tips against leaves and strokes the faces of men.

  • Days Without End

 

Unlike Swift’s Mothering Sunday, Days Without End depends heavily on the time period in which it’s written. Using the largely Scots-Irish settled American South, it explores the richness of its immigrant heritage, as well as the period of expansion just prior to, and then during, the Civil War itself.

Days Without End won the Costa Book Award. It fully deserves the Walter Scott, as well.