I didn’t plan to read two well regarded stories about dementia – Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and Still Alice by Lisa Genova – so close together but that’s the way it happened. The novels are very different but both are incredibly sad.
Elizabeth is Missing is the story of Maud, an elderly woman whose memories and daily life is crippled by dementia. Much to the frustration of those around her, Maud is on a desperate quest to find her best friend, Elizabeth, who she believes has disappeared. In searching for Elizabeth, a dual narrative unfolds, revealing secrets in Maud’s past.
I suspect that it is very difficult to write from the perspective of someone with memory loss – how do you mention something on one page and then convincingly ‘forget’ it on the next? Healey pulls it off perfectly, with some beautiful and creative writing to boot. Maud is so convincing that you feel as befuddled as her and at the same time, feel her family’s frustration and occasional loss of patience over the constant need to repeat things to Maud.
“I have made a note of what she’d said, or some of it… I write everything down. There are bits of paper all over the house, lying in piles or stuck up on different surfaces… My paper memory. It’s supposed to stop me forgetting things. But my daughter tells me I lose the notes. I have written that down too.”
The ‘mystery’ part of Elizabeth is Missing was not as mysterious as I’d hoped. Maud’s search for Elizabeth became a little repetitive and although that may be the reality of living with dementia, it wasn’t difficult to work out the simple explanation for her disappearance. More interesting was the mystery in Maud’s past, however, although it was a well constructed plot line, the resolution felt forced and far-fetched. As a result, the ending of the book fell flat. 3/5
In contrast, Still Alice by Lisa Genova is a story told in chronological order and in a plain and simple way. It’s told from the perspective of Alice Howland, a professor at Harvard, wife, and mother of three grown children. One day, Alice sets out on her usual running route and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. Medical consults reveal early-onset Alzheimer’s. The story reveals Alice’s increasing memory loss through repeated scenes in the doctor’s office, as well as her disconnection with family, friends and colleagues.
Although Genova’s words didn’t have me pausing to reread and savour, I did admire how she built tension. It is partly because Alice is relatively young (aged fifty) that the story is terrifying but it’s also attributed to Genova’s clever handling of memory loss – compared to Elizabeth’s Maud, Alice is aware and frustrated by her own errors for much of the story. Here she searches for the word ‘hammock’ –
“Alice named the rest of the pictures without further difficulties, but she couldn’t activate the neuron that encoded the missing name of the napping net.”
Genova also explores ideas of where love is ‘stored’ – the head or the heart – and similarly examines all the traits, skills, faults, interests and memories that make a person who they are –
“‘Have you thought about whether or not you’d like to donate your brain to research?’
She had thought about it. She imagined her brain, bloodless, formalin-perfused, and Silly-Putty-colored, sitting in the cupped hands of a medical student. The instructor would point at various sulci and gyri, indicating the locations of the somatosensory cortex, the auditory cortex, and the visual cortex. The smell of the ocean, the sounds of her children’s voices, John’s hands and face… the enlarged ventricles would be striking. The empty spaces where she’d once resided.”
Purely because of my own interests, I found the scenes dealing with genetic testing for Alzheimer’s thought-provoking. Overall, a tough but gripping read. 4/5