One of the most talked-about novels of last year’s London Book Fair is published this June: Elizabeth is Missing had nine UK publishers competing to secure rights —with Penguin victorious. “You think: ‘It would be lovely to be published one day’,” says first-time author Emma Healey, “But you don’t think you’ll go into [publishers’] offices and people will pitch to you,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Surely I should be desperate, on my knees for you to publish me!”
Elizabeth is Missing is narrated by Maud, an 81-year-old woman who keeps forgetting things. Her memory has deteriorated to such an extent she has to write notes to herself: lists, reminders and instructions about the simplest things. But broken as her mind is, it keeps returning insistently to her missing friend Elizabeth. Nobody else is concerned about Elizabeth—not Maud’s exasperated daughter Helen, or her carer Carla, or Elizabeth’s shifty-seeming son Peter who is getting increasingly annoyed with Maud. But Maud knows something has happened to her friend, and that she needs to find her.
Both a gripping mystery and a study of dementia, Elizabeth is Missing has rightly been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (“I loved the fact that it was a detective novel that wasn’t a detective novel,” Healey says) and S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. In common with these novels, Elizabeth is Missing has a first-person narrator struggling to make sense of the world. In Curious Incident... the young hero had Asperger’s; here Maud suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Healey has observed the disease and its effects at close quarters. Her paternal grandmother suffers from dementia, and as her illness progressed Healey found herself “trying to work out how I could explain what was happening inside her head to myself”. Discussions with her dad about what it might be like to have dementia—“my dad thought that it was like being drunk all the time but I thought that was a bit optimistic”—provided inspiration for her first novel.
Elizabeth is Missing took five years to write but “as soon as I found that first-person narrator I was pretty set”, says Healey. “It was difficult sometimes to do it all from Maud’s point of view but it would have felt like I had not worked hard enough if I’d just had [Maud’s daughter] Helen say: ‘oh by the way, this is what’s happening’.”
As Maud grapples with Elizabeth’s apparent vanishing she is increasingly reminded of a much older mystery—the disappearance of her beloved sister Sukey over 60 years earlier. As the novel progresses Maud’s mind starts to recall the events of the 1940s more clearly than the events of the present day as her mind flits between the two time periods.
“I didn’t want scenes that were too short and fragmented, but I thought having fairly short scenes and present/past/present/past in one chapter mimics the way that memories work [and the way that] memories break into your everyday life”, says Healey of the novel’s structure. “The aftermath of the Second World War, when things were in flux, fitted so well with the flux that’s in Maud’s mind.”
Elizabeth is Missing is Healey’s first attempt at writing anything: “I know people say they have another novel that’s in their bottom drawer so I feel a bit of a fraud—I don’t even have proper short stories that I’ve written—but I got completely obsessed with this story.” When she began the novel she was working in marketing for an art gallery, but gained a place on the prestigious MA Creative Writing: Prose at the University of East Anglia on the basis of the first 50,000 words.
The MA led to Healey meeting her agent — Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown — so unsurprisingly she is a big fan of creative writing courses, but an earlier stint as a bookseller (for Waterstones’ Trafalgar Square branch) also stood an aspiring novelist in good stead: “It was very satisfying seeing the books come in and knowing what people buy and what’s new and what’s selling well—you see what people really get enthusiastic about. I’m not a writer who thinks about writing only for themselves; I do always have a reader in mind. It does help to think what people really enjoy because I want people to enjoy a book, I don’t want them to think: ‘Yeah, it’s nicely written but it’s a slog’.”
At 275 pages, Elizabeth is Missing is definitely not a slog: it fuses a tantalising mystery with a touching study of dementia. What she was aiming for she says, with a touch of agent-speak, is “literary fiction with a nod to genre”. The trickiest thing? “Keeping everything in my head at once” and, in an unconscious echo of her elderly narrator, “the number of times I scribbled things down and then later thought: ‘I don’t know what that is!’”
Format: £12.99 HB/EB tbc
ISBN: 9780241003503/ 968192
Rights sold: 19 territories to date, including US (HarperCollins)
Editor: Venetia Butterfield, Viking
Agent: Karolina Sutton, Curtis Brown
1985: Born in London
2002-2007: Foundation year at Central St Martins; then BA (Hons) Book Arts and Crafts, London College of Communications
2006-2007: Bookseller at Waterstones Trafalgar Square
2007-2010: Marketing and communications officer, Mall Galleries
2010-2011: MA Creative Writing: Prose, University of East Anglia
- Second 'remarkable' Emma Healey novel coming next year
- Cecilia Ekbäck | “The winters are often lonely, it’s dark when you get up and dark when you come home from work—it’s always dark”
- Rachel Holmes | 'I was part of the start-up group at Amazon when there were just nine people'
- Barbara Kingsolver | "I didn’t want to write a novel that people would throw across the room when they were halfway done"
- Fergus Fleming | 'His books were a constant presence in the house when I was growing up but my parents weren’t that bothered by Bond'