There are a lot of books out there that flip between the present day and the past. It’s been going on a while but is becoming more and more of a common occurrence. I shouldn’t judge, I do the same in my own book.
Why does it get used? In the case of Memories of a Murder I use it to explore a difficult family history that needs to be understood in order to fully explain why the murder happens. I sometimes wonder if I could have written it in a different way, but that is a question for a different day.
I’ve seen other books use the technique before and it doesn’t always work, sometimes it comes across as a bit of a gimmick and can be somewhat confusing as well. Some books do it well, but there’s no need to write it in that way.
My point is, Healey uses this technique and to great effect.
Elizabeth Is Missing tells the tale of Maud, an elderly widow who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The story is told from Maud’s point of view and brilliant captures the confusion of someone who’s consciousness is slowly blurring into a sea of vague, insubstantial moments.
Like most people suffering from Alzheimer’s, Maud retains quite a vivid memory of her younger years, and she quite often retreats into these memories. That’s why the structural technique of alternating between time periods works so well in this book, because for Maud, it’s one big swirling mess. It’s all happening to her right now, or more accurately, it feels like it all just happened.
When I said on Twitter that I’d just finished reading Elizabeth Is Missing, someone asked whether they’d found her. I replied stating that that was the wrong question. It wasn’t about whether they found her, but actually whether Elizabeth was really missing at all.
The ‘disappearance’ of Elizabeth is connected only to Maud’s younger days by the disappearance of her older sister Sukie. Maud confuses the two constantly throughout the book, and we as a reader are left to assume that she is simply a confused old woman and that while something has happened to Elizabeth, it is nothing sinister. The resolution of the mystery of Elizabeth comes a little way from the end and feels – at first – kind of flat, but it ripples into something more and we finally found out what happens to Sukie
To me, the plot feels almost secondary to the journey we go on with Maud, and maybe that’s because, even though it is resolved at the end of the novel, for Maud, it will never be resolved. Before I’d even finished turning that last page, she’d likely already forgotten what happened. She thinks of her mother at one point, who never finds out what happened to Sukie, and you can’t help but feel sad that Maud will never really know either. This isn’t a disease that will get better, she’ll keep going round in circles.
And that’s what you’re left with at the end of the book, a sense of sadness not only for Maud, but also her daughter Helen. Without revealing too much, the truth comes out because Helen finally snaps, sick of her mother constantly questioning the same things over and over again. Maud will never know the truth, but she’ll never stop asking. Helen will have to live with that constant questioning – and the heartbreak of having to answer.
This brings me to my only real criticism of the book. I said that the plot feels secondary to the writing, the experiences Maud is going through. It works during the present day parts, but I found myself reading the past sequences wanting to get back to the present. The thinking of a confused, older mind, the bit of the book that’s fascinating to read, isn’t there.
It’s presented as the thoughts of a young girl – and books that do this are ten-a-penny. The sadness of Maud’s older years isn’t there, and the plot isn’t strong enough to carry the parts in the past. Maybe it’s that young Maud and old Maud don’t seem to be the same person to me. Old Maud actually seems sharper than her young counterpart, despite her Alzheimer’s, whereas Young Maud comes across as a bit simple, maybe a bit vague.
I wish Young Maud had been fleshed out a bit more, it would have helped carry the plot that little bit better, and I think would have made the ending that much more heartbreak.
Ultimately, Elizabeth Is Missing is a wonderful book, one that has the potential to make you cry, but doesn’t quite get there. I don’t give out numbers out of ten – but I will say this is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.