Creating an unreliable narrator with dementia is a risky choice for a first-time author. Well, it would be for those of us who lack British author Emma Healey’s talent. She tells her debut novel’s story through the eyes of Maud Horsham, an 82-year-old woman whose mind is slowly unravelling.
After the success of Gillian Flynn’s domestic thriller ‘Gone Girl’, the publishing industry is awash with missing women. As the title suggests, it’s Maud’s friend Elizabeth who has gone missing in this case. Or at least, Maud thinks so.
She is determined to convince those around her – her daughter, granddaughter, carers, police and anyone else who will listen – that something has happened to her one remaining friend. But not only is Maud desperate to help Elizabeth, she is also reliving the disappearance in 1946 of her older sister Sukey.
The book’s strength is its main character more so than the intrigues of its plot. The pace can be frustratingly slow at points but there is something about this type of story, asking the reader to follow a trail of crumbs and solve a puzzle that the narrator cannot make sense of, that keeps us gripped throughout.
The story behind the novel is an interesting one. It launched a rare and justified bidding war among publishers when Healey submitted sections of the book as her MA thesis. In interviews, Healey has said she based the character of Maud on one of her grandmothers, who was able to read the first draft of the novel before she slipped further into a type of dementia.
This is clearly a meticulously researched work of fiction and it pays off in a very believable, tender portrayal of mental illness. One drawback for me as a reader was the fact that at any point someone could have told Maud the circumstances behind Elizabeth’s disappearance. I found myself quite frustrated by this device. There was also a disappointing lack of twists or surprise. It became apparent to me quite early on what had happened to both Elizabeth and Sukey and unfortunately, I was right in both cases. But it was how Healey got into Maud’s mind that intrigued me. I wanted to know how this woman, with her fading mind, would solve these intertwining mysteries and I think the conclusion was done very well.
With those reservations in mind, I would still recommend this book. This is a commendably well-crafted story with a fantastic main character. It won the Costa First Novel Award last year – and deservedly so, in my opinion.
By Dónal Lucey