I do like to dig in my toes when everyone is talking about something. So contrary. As a child my mother insists that I would pester her relentlessly to tell me what I should wear, and then carefully put on the opposite. As I remember it, I merely wanted validation of what I already knew I wanted to wear – unfortunately her choices rarely matched my own. As a teenager I delighted in not smoking or drinking in large part for the bloody-minded pleasure of not following the herd. “How individual you are,” I preened to myself, smoothing down my raglan t-shirt and bootcut jeans while watching Home&Away and listening to the Sugababes.
But this yearning to be an individualist crops up again from time to time. “You MUST read this!” breathes Waterstones, pushing The Latest Thing on me. It’s in all of the papers, I get sent marketing emails about it from book clubs I can’t remember signing up to. I sigh, wearily, and pointedly pick up Daniel Deronda. I am a ghastly human being.
The latest phenomenon has been Elizabeth is Missing, and I had every intention of not reading it. But my lovely friend Tamsin recommended it, and if there’s one thing I struggle to resist, it’s a personal recommendation. So I found myself one night, baby feeding, flicking the pages with a thumb. And what I found was something profoundly inventive. Not in its language (see A Girl is a Half-formed Thing), its play with time (see The Bone Clocks) or simple bonkers-ness (see The Magus). On the surface it’s pretty simple and readable. And yet it’s profoundly inventive and modern in its narratorial voice. Imagine a voice which doesn’t know what it knows – which knows less as the book goes on – which doesn’t remember what it was thinking in the last paragraph. Namely, a voice with dementia.
The easy readability obscures quite how hard a book this must have been to craft into a workable story. Healey reaches into an unravelling mind and draws out a plot, a character, suspense, pathos, humour. The novel follows Maud, an elderly lady suffering with dementia, living alone but supported by her daughter and a carer. Healey eases us in, showing us a memory lapse here, a non-sequitur there, but as the book progresses her condition deepens into a chronic forgetting of the most basic words and recent memories. Healey cleverly uses the fact that long term memory often remains keen in dementia to weave together a past and present storyline which increasingly reflect one another. Maud is obsessed with the fact that her friend Elizabeth has disappeared, and battles to uncover the mystery which others seem determined to keep from her. This investigation prompts childhood memories of her sister, and two detective-style storylines are drawn alongside one another.
Because it’s an easy read, you somehow expect an uplifting ending, which is slightly stupid given you’re reading a novel on dementia. There is some validation and certainly some satisfying fictional conclusions, but the final note chimes with sadness for one of life’s cruellest conditions. Dementia is a human tragedy more resonant than a hundred broken hearts – but it’s hidden. So ultimately this novel’s achievement is not in its quality of language or style. It is that it gets under the skin of dementia to present this befuddling condition from the inside with humanity, candour, and flashes of humour. And that’s worth reading, whatever anyone tells you.