This unique narrative featuring the rambling musings of a rapidly deteriorating eighty-two-year-old is a complicated trick to pull off. Healey structures her story like an internal diary, recounting the daily events of Maude, who has dementia and is convinced that her best friend, Elizabeth, has gone missing. In many cases, Maude’s thoughts are hastily written on a series of notes she keeps around the house, supplemented by her caregiver, Carla, and her daughter, Helen, who—as the novel progresses—gets increasingly upset and frustrated at her mother’s deteriorating state.
Healey’s lush, descriptive prose provides the perfect accent to increasingly confused Maude, who once upon a time lived in “a deep, dark forest” where Elizabeth was her only friend. Other friends are long since gone, either to care homes or graves. The only connection to her reality seems to be the soiled compact Maude clutches in her hand. Found in the place where summer squash was once planted, the compact comes to symbolize the essential aspect of the mystery unfolding in the fractured connections of Maude’s confused mind.
Despite being nearly incapacitated with dementia, somehow Maude painstakingly pieces together a fragmented picture of what is happening and what is being kept from her by Helen and by the police, who know her well and try to appease her with kindness when she visits the station to report Elizabeth’s disappearance. Far more sinister than Elizabeth’s vanishing is that of Maude’s beautiful older sister, Sukey, not seen since “the night of the fish and chips.” Maude’s mother and father know something is wrong as does Douglas, the American lodger, and Sukey’s husband, Frank, who has been fanatically trying to find her: “One minute everything is fine and the next she’d vanished.”
To make things even more complicated, Maude’s “paper memory” contradicts the few puzzling memories that eventually surface. She is soon horribly confusing Elizabeth’s disappearance with Sukey’s. As Maude tries to get through her daily life, wondering why she’s in a room or the identity of the strange woman standing in front of her, her long-forgotten stories plunge us into her past life: as a girl just after the war when the American soldiers were going home and the town was still full of evacuees from London.
Maude’s own process of discovery brilliantly ties into her investigative process, leading her through a twisting, winding path to a journey that is complex and wonderful. Memories mix with strange visions: Sukey with her hair tangled and her strange behavior at the last dinner; the mad woman who leans over Maude, her teeth bared and her umbrella raised; the silly Vera Lynn songs over and over; and Douglas, searching Sukey’s staircase while calling to the madwoman in the park. There is also shifty Frank, who runs a removal business and clearly loves Sukey. Maude’s last recollections are of Frank telling Sukey to go to the Station Hotel “because of the mad woman.”
As Maude’s questions lose their definition and her thoughts become masked and unrecognizable, she is forced to move in with Helen and granddaughter Katy. Here she finally remembers her son, Tom, who hated to spend a night away but has made a life for himself in another country. Maude’s story may be dark and mysterious, but it is also a heartbreaking tale of a demented amateur sleuth who has an impending sense that everything is not as it seems. Perhaps Maude has been fussing over nothing, and Elizabeth is indeed at home?
A bit repetitive at first, Healey cleverly balances the tangled cobwebs of Maude’s mind with the escalation of events, a vulnerable old lady unwilling to turn away from the opportunity to solve a mystery. Healey meets the challenge: from the opening pages, she makes us understand how Alzheimer’s affects so many, how it brings families together, and how the disease shows that we can never afford to make trite generalizations about a person’s state of mind, even when their memory is gradually drifting away.