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When Elizabeth is Always Missing

This was the most elegantly crafted elegy to the one of the most degrading diseases of our century. Elizabeth is missing by Emma Healey gently leads us into the viscous labyrinths of the old lady‘s mind, which is ruthlessly being conquered by Alzheimer‘s.

The story is told by Maud and this is the very point. When you‘ve got a storyteller with progressing Alzheimer‘s, how can you trust her? Especially when Maud herself is being honest: „There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I‘ve lost the thread of it now“.

Maud wonders around the house with the pockets full of paper notes to remind her of actions she should take or stop taking. However, the most important note she‘s got is „Elizabeth is missing“. This is her only friend left and Maud admits that „being with Elizabeth, laughing with her, is the only time I feel like myself“.

However, Elizabeth is really not around but both Maud‘s daughter Helen as well as Elizabeth‘s son are suspiciously ignoring the issue. With memory blackouts getting more frequent and more severe, Maud tries to hold on on the popping up urge to find her friend. But more quickly the present fades from the memory, more clearly become her personal experiences from her early youth. It was the time when somebody has also gone missing. Maud‘s sister Surkey.

Maud‘s reminiscences about her postwar life with her parents and just married sister are crystal clear. She gradually reconstructs the whole tragedy from the final meeting with her sister Surkey, before she went missing, to her hopeless childish searches to find out what has really happened. Was it her husband Frank, black market dealer and a rather unreliable guy? Or maybe it was their tenant Douglas who, as Maud finds out, liked to spend time with Surkey at her place and started acting weird after her disappearance? And what was the role of a local mad woman who seems to know something important?

Events that effected Maud‘s mind almost seventy years ago continue overtaking both her mind and the plot. Elizabeth is still missing, however, the present has no boundaries anymore: this Maud‘s concern breaks the surface with no precise definition of time – she never remembers her visits to police to report her friend missing or putting an ad in the paper. Actually, she doesn‘t even remember seeing her friend at the hospital.

I reckon this novel should be read by anyone looking after a family member with Alzheimer‘s or just a sort of dementia. As it is like being inside the one. How does it feel when you go to the grocery store just to buy some chocolate but you end up with peach slices because you don‘t remember what were you there for the second you stepped in but you‘re too proud to admit to the shop assistant that peach slices are not the purpose of your trip?

The inevitable progress of the disease mingles the present and the past, giving the way to the latter. Isn‘t it horrible when you cannot remember the name of „a pencil“ when you see one but you can perfectly list all the items from your sisters suitcase who disappeared seventy years ago?

The whole novel radiates serenity and gentleness, despite this cruel hopelessness, which awaits Maud. In the end her lunatic searches are justified. „It‘s difficult to picture yourself in a memory“, thinks Maud, and perhaps that‘s why we lose ourselves in our own brain so easily. Though concern for the others stays forever and, therefore, Elizabeth probably will always be missing...

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