When I see someone reading a book on the train, I usually try to see what the title is and who wrote it. I suppose I like to know which books attract different kinds of reader. One day in 2015, I was on a train in France and noticed a woman reading a book with the title L’Oubli by an author I’d never heard of before, Emma Healey. I immediately guessed that the book was a translation from the English. Apart from the fact that translations of English novels are very popular in France, the author’s name sounded particularly English too.
I made a mental note to Google the book when I got home, and find out what it was called in English. The surprising thing is that, for once, I actually followed up on this resolution. I learned that the original title was Elizabeth Is Missing, that the book is the first-person narrative of a character who is suffering from dementia, had been the subject of a bidding war and had won prizes. It was the author’s first novel.
I didn’t buy the book immediately and it wasn’t till four years later that I finally read it. In the meantime, reviews had persuaded me that Healey’s second novel, Whistle in the Dark would be more my kind of thing. I was afraid that a popular novel featuring dementia and memory-loss would necessarily find it difficult to avoid being heartwarming, or even sentimental. I eventually found a battered, secondhand copy of the paperback in a charity shop and decided that I couldn’t pass it up.
It’s not excessively heartwarming or sentimental. Healey is skilled enough to suggest the abyss facing the protagonist, without forcing the reader to confront it. Maud is 80 and just about capable of living on her own. She constantly makes tea that she forgets to drink, makes and eats toast whenever it occurs to her, having no recollection of having done the same thing a little earlier. She puts on the gas to boil an egg, but forgets to light it. She stocks up on tins of sliced peaches almost every time she goes to the shop.
When she goes to the police to report that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing, she’s taken aback to find that they recognize her and are already familiar with her story. She’s been to see them before Her pockets are full of notes to remind her what she’s doing and why. Some of those notes are long out of date.
Elizabeth is not, in fact, missing — but somebody is, and there is indeed a connection with Elizabeth. Elizabeth has for some time been in a stroke rehabilitation unit. She seems to have suffered the stroke as the result of a fall in her garden at night, where Maud has dug up half of a broken powder compact which she (Maud) recognizes.
Maud has been assured regularly that Elizabeth is not missing, and has been taken to see her once, despite the risk that this will distress both women. But the information just won’t stick. Maud eventually gets back to the refrain: Elizabeth is missing.
The person who is really missing, and has been for almost 70 years since 1947, is Maud’s older sister Sukey. Sukey had been married to Frank, who during the war had been able to get black market goods and foodstuffs, and had been prosecuted after the war in connection with forged ration coupons. Sukey disappeared at around the same time Frank went to prison, but never reappeared, either when he was released or subsequently.
In the end it’s revealed that Sukey’s corpse had been buried (by Frank, though there’s no direct evidence of this) in the garden of a newly built house in a new estate. This later becomes Elizabeth’s house, and Maud recognizes something about it that sends her digging in the garden, where she unearths half of Sukey’s broken powder compact. Finally Maud’s daughter, Helen, a gardener, finishes the job and uncovers the body buried in a tea chest, with the wreckage of a hideous ornament containing mechanical birds, that Sukey hated and feared and that presumably got broken in the fight in which Frank killed Sukey.
Maud momentarily accepts that it has never been Elizabeth who was missing. “It’s the wrong name”, she admits (p. 258). In a lucid episode, she tells Helen:
“… But Sukey’s things were in the garden, waiting for me, marking the place. Her compact was there. I found it too late, far too late. Now I’ll never find her, will I? She’ll always be missing and I’ll always be looking for her. I can’t bear it.” (p. 259)
This is the cue for Helen to start digging up the garden. So, notwithstanding Maud’s dementia and infirmity, and the fact that she was pursuing the wrong target, her persistence and determination ultimately led to the revelation of the truth about her sister’s disappearance so many decades earlier? Not quite. Maud doesn’t get resolution or closure — of, if she could be said to have done so, she’s not conscious of the fact. Even at Elizabeth’s funeral, she is slipping back into her previous pattern of thought: her friend, Elizabeth, is missing.
If Elizabeth Is Missing is the first-person narrative of a woman whose memory and rational faculties are seriously impaired, Healey’s second novel is something quite different. The two books do have something in common, however. Maud is distressed by the thought that Sukey has been lying alone, forgotten in the cold earth, for nearly seventy years. In Whistle in the Dark, a young woman, really just a girl, is trapped underground in the dark. Unlike Sukey, she is not dead but is instead waiting to die, cold, hungry and alone.
The central character is Jen, whose younger daughter, Lana, was missing for four days. Everybody — police, family, press, public — expected the worst, but Lana is found alive by a farmer in the Peak District. She’s wet, cold and starving, with a head wound that has apparently bled a lot and many other scratches and abrasions but no very serious injuries. Lana insists that she can’t remember anything about the four days she was missing.
Most of the story is taken up with Jen’s attempt to steer an impossible path between respecting her daughter’s autonomy and the real need to protect her from danger. On the one hand, she wants to avoid interrogating her daughter, pressuring her to revisit what was obviously a very distressing experience, but there are genuine reasons why she feels that she can’t just accept the situation unquestioningly.
Before her disappearance, Lana had been self-harming by cutting her arms, and she had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of painkillers.
After the appointments and meetings and interviews this had prompted, the doctors and social workers had told Jen to take a photo of Lana into all the local chemist’s, to take a photo and tell them never to sell her painkillers or anything else she could use to harm herself. (p. 147)
In the end, and without consciously deciding to do so, Jen finds herself retracing Lana’s steps, and subjects herself to much the same experience as that undergone by her daughter. This experience, recounted in just the last 26 pages of the novel, reminded me of George Sluizer’s film The Vanishing (1988), based on a novel by Tim Krabbé. In the film, the central character confronts the man who abducted his girlfriend three years earlier and demands to know what he had done to her. The kidnapper tells him that the only way he can find out is to go through the same experience himself.
Unlike the protagonist of The Vanishing or his girlfriend, Lana and her mother both survive, though that hardly makes the situation less horrific.
Neither of these books is a typical mystery story. Elizabeth Is Missing is not a whodunnit, but more a what-did-he-do? Sukey’s husband, Frank, has always seemed to be the the most likely person to be behind her disappearance. The reader never discovers whether he’s still alive when her body is discovered and, if so, whether he’s prosecuted. The novel is largely concerned with Maud’s relationships, both as a teenager and as an old woman, particularly with members of her family.
She and Sukey were close. After Sukey’s marriage, Maud often visited the house where she and Frank lived and when she disappeared, Maud almost obsessively collected little things that might be clues. Her parents were not demonstrative but her father in particular was clearly upset when Sukey disappeared and put a great deal of effort into looking for her. Her mother was quite sympathetic to Frank, who supplied her with goods beyond what she could get with her ration book, such as meat and sugar. Her father, in contrast, distrusted Frank and disapproved of buying on the black market — though he benefited from it, whether knowingly or not. He was furious to learn that his wife had been using Sukey’s ration book after she went missing.
The older Maud’s relationships with her own daughter (Helen) and granddaughter (Katy) tend to be more vividly drawn. Sometimes, Maud forgets who one or other of them is, only to address her by name seconds later. Helen is exasperated by Maud’s forgetfulness and her constant return to worn-out themes. She has stopped answering when Maud asks her (yet again) where is the best place to grow marrows. What Maud is really asking, though she doesn’t realize it, is where Frank is likely to have buried Sukey’s body.
Katy, a generation removed from Maud, is less disturbed or frustrated than her mother is by Maud’s difficulties. This is normal. Of course, she’s also not so tired of having to rescue the older woman from police stations and embarrassing situations.
Notwithstanding the first-person narration, it would be impossible for Healey to recreate in the reader’s consciousness the confusion, the ebb and flow of short-term memories, in Maud’s. But she nevertheless succeeds in communicating a good sense of how Maud feels. For example, in a drawer in Helen’s house, Maud finds various half-familiar things, neatly arranged:
And there is a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.
The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil and bang into a bookcase in my hurry to leave the room. (p. 217)
One moment, the word “pencil” is gone, the next it’s back, unnoticed.
Inter-familial relations feature strongly in Whistle in the Dark too. Lana has an older sibling, Meg, who was already about 10 when Lana was born and had finished university by the time Lana had become a recalcitrant teen. Meg has broken up with her girlfriend and become pregnant, by donor insemination (a phrase, and concept, that Lana finds repellant), the donor being her childhood friend, Tom.
Meg is methodical, orderly and has a remarkable design sense, unlike her mother whose job title is actually “graphic designer” (p. 54).
She had once watched as Meg took about a hundred corks out of a huge glass jar, cleaned the jar, brushed fluff off each individual cork then put them all back in again. “Whose child are you?” she’d wanted to ask. (p. 300)
As a significantly older sibling and not a parent, Meg’s scepticism about Lana’s claimed inability to remember what happened to her, is more likely than her mother’s to be tolerated. When Jen finds several books about hell under Lana’s bed, and a second, hidden phone on which she’s been talking to an ordinand of the New Lollards Fellowship, who believes that she descended into hell while she was missing, Lana goes to stay with Meg for a while, leaving Jen relatively free to return to where Lana disappeared in the Peak District.
The second novel came out in 2018, four years after the first. I suspect that its sales may have been disappointing in comparison with those of the earlier book but that’s just a guess on my part. Either way, I haven’t been able to find anything online about Healey’s writing any newer fiction. I hope that she is, and that we’ll soon see some of it.
Editions: Both Penguin paperbacks, published 2015 and 2019 respectively (original publication dates 2014 and 2018); emphasis original, ellipsis added.
I hope everybody has a very happy New Year. If I keep to schedule for once, the next post will be on 10 January 2024, otherwise it will be the following weekend. I haven’t yet decided what it will be about, but I have a few ideas.
I was surprised to see that it’s a whole year since I deleted my Twitter account. I’ve been trying Substack Notes as an alternative but I’m not finding it very congenial, largely because it doesn’t have a following/reverse chronological order feed. In the last few weeks, I’ve signed up to BlueSky, which seems to be where a lot of the people I most enjoyed following on Twitter have ended up. I mean people who post about books, literature, reading and so on.
Of course, Micro.blog has been my primary alternative to Twitter for more than five years now, and that will continue to be the case. (Though Micro.blog is separate from Mastodon, it is part of the fediverse, and my Micro.blog profile can be followed at