When I was about two pages into Elizabeth Is Missing. I told my husband (always a good listener) that the style was like pen sketches, black and white, clear and precise, while A Game of Throne is like oil paintings with big blobs of really saturated colours (even snow and grey sky were really “bright” in my mind). I thought it would just be a slow story about an old lady with dementia, but in the end it turned out to be a crime story. I was a bit shocked. I liked the book but not the ending…
There are clues threaded through the whole book. I didn’t realise they were significant at the beginning. Marrow was an obvious one; the pebbled garden wall was a less obvious but more important one. The title of the book is another clue. Maud kept repeating it, annoyingly at the beginning, but there was a penny-dropping moment, when I finally realised this muddled mind of Maud was trying very hard to make everything out under the surface. There was more than one layer of meaning behind that sentence. Who was Elizabeth? Did she really exist seeing how muddled Maud was? What happened to her? Why did Maud care about her so much? What was it that Maud really tried to do? The clues linked up events 70 years ago, of which Maud could retell in great detail. Maud was restless because she had a very important mystery to solve from the past before she completely forgot about everything. If she failed, the mystery would forever be gone with her.
She often got lost in her post-war childhood memory, and later on past and present completely merged. She had big areas of blank space in her mind. Time became elastic. One shocking scene was when she picked up a sticky note and wondered when she wrote that, but saw the ink was smudged on her hand. Sticky notes were not much use to her; words lost their meanings, speaking or written. She couldn’t concentrate. She did crazy things with good reasons and did weird things naturally – the author persuaded me, it was completely normal and natural if you knew what went on in her head. She once jumped off a moving car in the middle of a street and another time appeared with pearl necklace and lipstick out of the blue. Later on, she started to forget her daughter, she hurt her physically and wondered why there were bruises on her arm and there was such a mess in the room. It was cruel and sad to see what dementia did to a person and their family.
As well as an absorbing story, it’s also a fascinating study of a dementia-affected mind. I know it’s not scientific, but it’s equally interesting to read from a linguistic point of view. In an early chapter, she wrote down egg, milk and chocolate on her shopping list, but couldn’t remember what egg, milk or chocolate were. The name was detached from the object. She knew Helen was her daughter but she didn’t recognise this woman in front of her. When her daughter signed at her or rolled her eyes, she knew she just did something wrong or she just asked the same question again. So she still could interpret and understand the meaning of social interaction. She appreciated her granddaughter joking with her, treating her patiently and nicely. She was just “forgetful but not mad”.
When Maud couldn’t remember the names of certain objects, the author would describe them as Maud thought about them. But sometimes I couldn’t think of what object it was describing straightaway and at those points I thought I completely understood how Maud felt. I almost panicked and felt helpless. The author was very good at taking me into Maud’s head, thinking through her brain and seeing through her eyes, getting stuck and feeling weak in various situations.
I look forward to watching Maud on the silver screen played by an brilliant British actress with understated and skilful acting.
One of my grandmas had a stroke about 10 years ago and has hardly ever left her bed since. She was such an energetic, lively and quick-tempered woman, a University professor who speaks English and Russian. Can you believe, among the whole family across three generations, the only person who is comfortable to chat with my British husband is a 80 year old woman? It’s hard to imagine how she feels being imprisoned in a dim and narrow room in a ground floor flat. The stroke damaged some part of her brain but nothing as corrupting as dementia. I wonder what goes on in her mind. I hope when I next see her I would be like Maud’s granddaughter, patient, joyful and sensitive, so she knows that I’m happy to see her.