I think the first time I ever really contemplated the effects of Alzheimer’s, I mean really thought about the effects beyond the superficial understanding that it’s a disease that affects your memory and your mind, was when a girl named Melanie, a student in my creative writing class, decided to base her final project on her grandmother. Who had advanced Alzheimer’s. This was back in the nineties. What a lovely girl Melanie was… and how she laboured… how we both laboured… over her project. Making sure it was a fitting tribute to her grandmother, and to her grandmother’s life. I still remember reading her rough draft. Wiping my tears as I read, and raising my head to notice Melanie wiping her own tears as she watched me read.
I recently thought about Melanie and her writing project which taught me that Alzheimer’s is about so much more than memory loss. I was reading Emma Healey’s wonderful debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing. Healey’s main character, Maud, is over eighty, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, we assume. Whether Maud has Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia is never spelled out for the reader. But it doesn’t matter, really. We learn quickly that Maud, wry humoured and obviously intelligent, has trouble remembering. The shelf in the hallway is lined with half finished cups of tea that she has made, put down, and forgotten. Her pockets are stuffed with notes she writes to herself. Reminders to not buy any more canned peaches. To wait until noon to eat the lunch prepared for her by the visiting “carer” Carla. And a note that wonders if her friend Elizabeth is missing.
And that is the main thrust of the plot. Maud’s belief that her friend Elizabeth is missing because she doesn’t answer her phone, and when Maud finally goes to Elizabeth’s house, she isn’t there. So where is she? And as Maud struggles with the loss of her friend and with, well, everything really… all the confusion, and fear and exasperation of her day to day life… she also ponders a much older mystery. Where did her sister Sukey go when she disappeared over forty years ago? Healey weaves these two plots together, jumping back and forth between Maud’s present and her past in the aftermath of World War II when her sister simply disappeared.
The book is not perfect. Maud is by virtue of her failing memory an unreliable narrator. In her review in The Guardian Viv Groskop notes that Healey’s plot device eventually becomes “frustrating rather than thrilling.” A sentiment I would agree with. But she also calls Healey’s book an “impressive debut,” comparing her work to the mysteries of Kate Atkinson in being “not quite crime, not quite literary fiction.” Comparing any writer to Kate Atkinson is high praise in my book. And frustrating as the plot becomes at times, Healey brings both mysteries to a satisfying and inextricably linked conclusion. I mean, of course they’re linked. This is fiction after all.
|Elizabeth Is Missing author Emma Healey source|
Joy from Objekt Films on Vimeo.
My sister’s husband underwent heart surgery last winter. As a result of his extreme reaction to the surgical anesthetic, he was tested for and ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And I think about him… and about my sister… a lot. Especially about my sister.
Okay. Enough. As my mum always says when we talk about the past or about difficult subjects… enough of that, now.
How’re you doing this week? Read any good books lately?