Before I begin my review, here is a little bit of news about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Some of you may know that, along with Helen of She Reads Novels, I am attempting to read all the short-listed novels. Today the short list for 2016 was released. To see the list, check out my Walter Scott project page. I have only read one of the novels, but was disappointed, along with other readers, to see that A God in Ruins, which was on the long list, didn’t make the short list.
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Elizabeth Is Missing is—I won’t disguise it—the third book about Alzheimers I’ve read in the last six months. When the book blurb says Maud is forgetful, that’s putting it mildly. After only a few pages of this novel, I wondered why Maud was living alone.
Maud is an old lady who is having trouble keeping track of just about everything. She writes herself reminder notes but loses them. She makes endless cups of tea and forgets them. Her caregiver comes in every morning and makes her lunch and she has eaten it by 9:30. She remembers occasionally that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth doesn’t answer her phone and she isn’t home. But no one pays attention to a dotty old lady.
Of course, we realize fairly quickly that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but Maud has a more important mystery in her life. When she was a young girl just after World War II, her older sister Sukey disappeared, never to be seen again. Although Maud’s short-term memory is inconsistent, there’s nothing wrong with her long-term memory, at least not at first, so the more coherent narrative is the time around Sukey’s disappearance. Maud finds the boundaries between the past and present blurring.
I found this novel extremely painful to read at times, even more so than Still Alice. However, it is certainly compelling although not perhaps as realistic as Still Alice is.
One thing that bothered me, although only a bit, is that Maud clearly has all the information she needs to solve her sister’s disappearance, if only she can make sense of it. But she tried to investigate when she was young, and she had the same information then. That she would finally solve it in her current condition is a bit hard to buy. We’re to understand that she found something before the action of the novel, though. At least, that’s what I think happened, since sometimes the narration from the point of view of a confused old woman is a little opaque.