Dementia in Literature: Elizabeth is Missing

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I love a good mystery. I didn’t know this about myself until a couple of years ago. I can’t get enough Agatha Christie, Kate Morton, Jo Nesbo, Gillian Flynn or Camila Lackberg. When I read the synopsis for Elizabeth is Missing, it sounded similar to Before I Go To Sleep which I loved. So I was thrilled to get the chance to read it this week.


Elizabeth is Missing is Emma Healey’s debut novel. In it, we meet Maud, an 80-something year old woman convinced that something has happened to her good friend, Elizabeth. No one will tell her where Elizabeth is so she decides that she will find her. She calls hospitals, care homes, and Elizabeth’s horrible son; she visits Elizabeth’s house, peering in the windows, asking neighbours if they’ve seen anything. The problem is that Maud has trouble remembering things – she suffers from dementia.

The story slips back and forth between Maud’s present-day search for Maud and her search for her missing sister Sukey in 1946.

Here’s the issue with this book: it’s so sad. It’s a beautifully written novel that so accurately captures what it must be like to live with dementia, that it was all I could do not to weep for large sections of the book. Maud just wants to find her friend but she can’t remember how to make a cup of tea, what the names of common objects are, why she’s suddenly in this room. She writes herself notes on little scraps of paper but they aren’t complete and don’t really serve their purpose. Her daughter, Helen, comes in to look after her when she can but you can tell that she’s also incredibly frustrated with the situation: her mom constantly eating toast, leaving multiple cups of unfinished tea out, asking “where’s the best place to plant marrows?” over and over.

It took me a long time to connect with this story. I think because the whole thing just made me so sad. The only thing Maud seems able to remember with any frequency is that her friend is missing. The further you get in the novel, the more obvious it becomes that the search for Elizabeth mirrors the search for Sukey all those years ago.

As a society, we have a tendency to write off old people. Especially those that have health issues, like dementia. I thought that Healey did a beautiful job of writing an older character with dignity, even one that could barely remember her own name. Despite her challenges, Maud is feisty, strives to be independent, and shows an unwavering loyalty to a friend she can’t seem to find.

I wasn’t sure where the whole story was going to end up but the ending was incredibly satisfying. I love when a mystery is neatly tied up and this one tied up nicely. I wish I had spent time with this one on a patio in a patch of sun – I think it would have made for an even more satisfying reading experience.


16 thoughts on “Dementia in Literature: Elizabeth is Missing

  1. Just finished a book with a character with dementia…she was important to the story, but not so much in her present state, so it was easier to read about.

    • It’s so sad. Losing my memories has always been one of those unspoken fears of mine. Reading a book from that perspective really confirmed it for me. It would have been one thing if she wasn’t so upset and frustrated all the time, if she had been totally unaware of what was happening, happy thinking she was still as she was in 1946.

  2. Great review. I did think that parts of it was sad, but there were happy parts too, like when Maud would banter with Katy or when you can truly see Helen’s love despite her frustrations. I think this was a very realistic novel and I applaud Healey for that.

    • I did love the dynamic between Maud and Katy. Katy was so content to just let Maud be. I know that Helen cared very deeply for Maud and was just sad that she wasn’t really there anymore. It was incredibly realistic. I think that’s what made it so sad for me. I liked spending time with Maud but I felt so sad for her, for what she’s losing.

  3. I agree that Healey did a great job writing about a character with dementia. It seemed very real. And, yes, dementia is sad, but I didn’t find the book to be sad overall. There was something about the way she wrote it that kept my mind from the sad so that I could concentrate on the story. But, maybe it depends on your own personal experiences with dementia. I’m glad you liked it anyway!

    • I think it was less the fact that dementia is sad and more the way Maud reacts to her memory loss. As the story progresses, you see that she’s getting worse to the point where she can’t even write anymore. She’s so frustrated and the people around her are frustrated but they, Helen especially, are also increasingly sad as they realize she’s slipping away further and further. I was glad that there was closure in a way but by that time, Maud is pretty much gone.

      • Hopefully the closure helps Maud not to be so anxious that she’s forgetting something all the time. I found that it was mostly bothering her when it had to do with Elizabeth/Sukey. Maybe now, she will be more at peace. Although, maybe she will just forget that the mystery is solved and keep worrying about it. But, I’m going with the first option, because it makes me feel better. 🙂

  4. Damn, this book is sounding pretty incredible. I’ve been reading some of Terry Fallis’ books recently, and he seems to have a real penchant for putting likable, and useful, seniors in his books. It’s good to see that happening as I do think we write them off. -Tania

    • We totally write them off which is a shame – I think if we listened to them more, we could learn a lot. Most useful senior in literature is obviously Miss Marple. Maud is no Miss Marple, but a lovely character nonetheless. Healey did an incredible job on her debut novel.

  5. Pingback: Not a Manual: How To Be A Good Wife | The Paperback Princess

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