In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, there’s a scene between an old man and a young one. “Is it so difficult,” old Maester Aemon asks, “to imagine that an old person was once more or less like you?”
Emma Healey can. The British author so fully inhabits the 80-year-old heroine of her debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing that it’s easy to forget the writer has yet to hit 30. An elderly woman whose memory is failing her more every day, Maud desperately tries to convince those around her – her daughter, her doctor, the police, and anyone else who will listen – that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing. As the book progresses, Maud’s present is gradually swamped by her past, particularly her childhood just after World War II, when her older sister, Sukey, disappeared and was never found.
The story eagerly tugs the reader from chapter to chapter, but the book succeeds more on the strength of its main character than the intrigues of its plot. Like Maud’s memory, the question of what happened to Elizabeth and Sukey sputters along slowly. Certain objects and scenes present themselves again and again in Maud’s mind, gradually accumulating significance in the reader’s. Maud may not be the sexiest heroine of mystery novel, but her memory loss makes her the most interesting kind of narrator: a slippery one, one the reader can never quite trust.
Even Maud knows she can’t really trust herself. She asks the same questions over and over, unaware that they’ve already been answered. She may be losing her marbles – if she has Alzheimer’s or some other memory disorder, it’s never mentioned – but she’s not some dotty cliché of a frosty-haired pensioner. She’s surprisingly self-aware, even if only in her own head: when she asks her daughter if she’s driving her home, “Helen sighs. This means I’ve asked before.”
Maud is perceptive, but noticing is not the same as understanding. She notices when her doctor “holds [her] wrist in his hand and presses it, looking at his watch,” but doesn’t register that he’s taking her pulse. The reader becomes a kind of detective, following a trail of crumbs to figure out what she’s describing.
Perhaps it’s Healey’s youth that gives Maud, a grandmother, such zest despite her age, or maybe even because of it. When she gets confused or frustrated at not being understood, Maud turns into an animal, throwing and smashing and kicking and shrieking. Like a toddler, she has a constant impulse to touch things, sort them, take stock. She’ll find herself digging in the garden at dawn, covered in mud, with no recollection of what she’s looking for.
But Healey resists turning her into a tragic figure, instead showcasing Maud’s pluck and wicked sense of humour. Of the glasses she doesn’t really need, Maud observes, “They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under seventy.”
Elizabeth Is Missing has been described as a novel about mental illness. “I must be going mad,” Maud thinks, finding herself in the bedroom when she meant to go to the kitchen. But Healey’s writing is deeply empathetic and humane – her novel is not about a mad woman but an aging one. (Is she mad, or is she just Maud?)
The novel renders the mundane realities of aging newly strange; Maud’s hazy memory throws a noir-ish shade over the action, muddying the narrative sequence and illustrating old age not as the waiting room to death but as an endless series of adventures. Everything’s a mystery when you have no memory.
And yet from where the reader stands, firmly inside Maud’s wobbly mind, her logic makes sense. It’s only when Healey pauses to register the reaction of others that we understand that Maud has been to the police station four times already, or that she’s been violently lashing out at her daughter. Other works that deal with aging, like the 2006 Sarah Polley film Away From Her or Roz Chast’s just-released graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, are told from the perspective of people caring for their loved ones, watching them deteriorate and lose their grip on reality. But Elizabeth Is Missing sticks by its heroine throughout, showing us what aging feels like from the inside.
The book’s title is Maud’s mantra. She repeats it to everyone she meets, writes it down on endless scraps of paper, reaches for it when she can’t think of what to say. She becomes more and more frustrated when people dismiss her, when they tell her that her friend is probably just busy, or when they simply laugh at her. She feels like no one cares. But by design, the reader cares. It’s vital to the reader – it’s the whole point. Like Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Elizabeth is Missing is a redeeming force for its main character, even if she’ll never know it. (Because, you know, she’s not real.) In the words of a wise old man from Game of Thrones, “Old age is a wonderful source of ironies, if nothing else.”
Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and has written for The Grid, the L.A. Review of Books, Slate, and Guernica.