The idea of a completely reliable narrator is quite a questionable subject, since we are all unreliable when it comes to telling our own stories, hence, as the term ‘omniscient’ suggests, the reliable narrator must be some kind of divine, all-knowing being, allowed a profound insight into the depths of all other characters. However, the unreliable narrators seem much more relatable, more humane, with all their faults and naïveté that they themselves often can’t understand. We derive pleasure from reading about someone who is capable of making all our common mistakes. The unreliable narrator is oft defined as the narrator who either wilfully or unknowingly deceives the reader. These types of narrator are either biased, whereby they attempt to hide events and obscure connections on purpose, or they are not aware of their own bias or their own inability to comprehend the story in its entirety. Classic example of the narrator guided by ulterior motives can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, whereas some of the representatives of deficient narrators who cannot comprehend the situation in its proper light can be found in William Faulkner’s disabled narrators and Charles Dickens’ child narrators. Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing (2014) is told from the perspective of an octogenarian narrator who is suffering from either Alzheimer’s or common senility, and who investigates one mystery while unwittingly revealing the solution of another one that has been buried deep in the past.
A Tale of Two Disappearances
The story opens with Elizabeth and Maud, two elderly ladies, digging barefoot through a rain-soaked, muddy garden, and a half of a broken compact case that stirs some long-buried memories in Maud’s muffled mind. When Elizabeth goes missing, Maud takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her whereabouts, which takes her out of her house and around the neighbourhood that she’s lived in her entire life. However, in addition to Maud’s present-day quest for Elizabeth, another, subconscious search begins, a search that comes 70 years too late. Namely, Elizabeth’s disappearance triggers Maud’s memories of the time immediately after the Second World War, when her older sister Soukey went missing. Even back then, teenage Maud kept looking for Soukey, alas unsuccessfully, yet now her mind seems to unravel the tale more completely, and the hindsight casts a much brighter light on certain details that had escaped Maud all those years ago. The two story-lines are tightly intertwined; present events trigger memories and vice versa, events that happened a long time ago, propel Maud on her current mission.
On Being Old
Maud’s commentary on old age and on all the accoutrement that it requires is presented in a loving, humorous, and simultaneously touching way:
I only really need glasses for reading, but they make you wear them all the time once you reach a certain age. It’s part of the uniform. How would they know you were an old duffer otherwise? They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under seventy. False teeth, hearing aid, glasses. I’ve been given them all.
The way Healey portrays her elderly narrator is truly admirable. As she says in one of her interviews, she has derived a lot of inspiration for Maud from her own grandmothers who gave her the confidence to portray a character vastly different from herself. Due to her incessant struggle to keep her thoughts in line, Maud’s perception of certain common, everyday tasks is skewed, rendering the amount of effort she needs to invest almost palpable. The most ordinary visit to the doctor becomes something of an excursion to the Wonderland:
He holds something up (…). The thing is thin, made of wood. He waggles it between his fingers , the way we used to in school, a trick to make it look as though it’s floppy. I can’t think what it’s called though. Not a pen. ‘A tray,’ I say. That’s not right but i can’t find the word. ‘A tray, a tray.’
‘Okay, not to worry.’ He puts the thing down and picks up a piece of paper. ‘Take this in your right hand,’ he says. ‘Fold it in half and put it on the floor.’
I reach out to take the paper. I look at it, and look at the doctor. I check both sides of the paper. There’s nothing on it. No writing. I let it lie on my lap. He leans over and takes it off me, putting it back on a pile. Then he holds up a card with the words CLOSE YOUR EYES written on it. I’m beginning to think he’s bonkers (…).
The Winding Memory Lane
Every blurry present event triggers a flood of crystal clear memories:
The drone of a car somewhere in the distance is like a fly buzzing under glass, like a memory flinging itself at the surface of my brain. I pick up the phone and hold the next note under the lamp: Where is Elizabeth? My stomach drops. ‘She’s missing,’ I say aloud.
Remembering her quest for Elizabeth, makes Maud remember her quest for Soukey, all of the places that she visited looking for her, all of the people that she interviewed, the way her parents suffered, the role of the ‘mad woman’ who roamed their street, and the mysterious behaviour of their lodger Douglas and Soukey’s husband Frank. Eventually all of the puzzle pieces fit neatly into place leading Maud to heartbreaking discoveries.
Healey’s story is truly enjoyable, comparable to a typical detective story where one clue leads to another, however, Maud is the type of flawed narrator that requires an excruciating amount of patience on behalf of the readers as they, slowly but steadily, travel down Maud’s very winding memory lane. She keeps moving back and forth, getting into uncomfortable situations, repeating herself, and buying canned peaches. Healey has managed to delve deep into the mind of a senile old lady without making it boring, depressing, or too bleak, but rather quite moving and engaging.
© 2018 Erna G.