April 2015 Club

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s debut novel is inspired by her grandmother who had dementia. She takes a huge risk by making the narrator Maud, an octogenarian descending deeper into dementia, taking the concept of the “unreliable narrator” to the extreme. To add to the uncertainty, our protagonist has to solve a case of crime, or possibly two, despite not being able to remember the names of everyday objects, her own family or where she is most of the time.

But she has post-it notes – lots of them in her pocket, to remind her for a few fleeting seconds, of what it was she was supposed to remember. Her “paper memory”.

When Maud’s mind flicks to the past, just after the war when rationing was still in place and she lived with her mother, father and their lodger, her thoughts flow freely and there’s no confusion at all. She keeps coming back to the time when her newly married, glamourous older sister, Sukey, disappeared.  

In the present, a nagging, persistent thought keeps popping into her head – Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is her friend; she used to go to her house and drink endless cups of tea. She has a son who Maud has taken a dislike to and doesn’t trust.

So, Sukey has gone. Elizabeth has gone. And a part of Maud is missing and she’s losing more of herself on a daily basis. But somehow, with a great deal of will and a bit of heartache along the way, she manages to solve both disappearances.

Healey handles the balancing act of the two time periods with seeming ease and her writing contains such poignancy and humour, despite the utter sadness of the health condition.

One worry might have been that a narrator who constantly forgot everything would be irritating, but actually the novel teaches patience and understanding. Although not the first novel to portray dementia from the narrator’s point of view – Still Alice by Lisa Genova springs to mind – Healey captures the interactions of the family around Maud perfectly.

It’s often the children who live the closest who get the lion’s share of the day-to-day care, having to fit in appointments and shopping and sorting out crises around their busy family lives when the other siblings live further afield. Yet it’s the faraway siblings that get a wonderful response from the sufferer when they visit. There’s a moment when Maud says to her daughter “You know the one...Yes, you do. She works here. Always busy. Always cross. Always in a rush.” And Helen answers “I think you mean me, Mum.”

Colourway inspiration

Maud can’t see colour like she used to. She says “nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.” So I opted for the Enchant base, which only absorbs the colours gently to give a slightly more faded look. The softness of the baby alpaca, silk and cashmere with a slight haze lends itself to a suitable portrayal of Maud.

The semi-solid colourways is called More Peaches because when we first meet Maud, she’s heading out to buy another tin of peach slices without remembering she already has a vast collection in the kitchen cupboard. Peach can be a little scary to receive as a colourway but it can act as a gorgeous neutral and looks great with grey, teal, pink or chocolate. To explore some more combinations, I’ve put together a “Peach” board on Pinterest to offer some suggestions. You can find the board by following Skein Queen.

The variegated colourway is called Confusion. I recently did some painting with my dad who has Alzheimer’s and it was a fascinating process. It used to be a hobby he loved. He couldn’t tell one colour from another but it didn’t matter in the least about what he painted or what colours he used – he just enjoyed the process of putting colour onto white.

I wanted to capture a bit of the confusion that comes with dementia by leaving some white spaces to represent the gaps in memory. I added grey to represent grey matter, red for the Victory Red lipstick in the book, brown for the earth Maud digs and peach to tone in with the semi-solid. As planned, all the colours faded on the Enchant base to produce a softly variegated randomly dyed colourway.