This 2014 novel (I do occasionally venture back to the 21st century in order to keep things fresh) is both a riveting and a painful read.
It is riveting as the plot is focused on two mysteries, seventy years apart – the whereabouts of elderly, present-day Maud’s great pal Elizabeth, and the fate of Maud’s big sister Sukey, who went missing amidst the confusion of immediate post-war Britain when Maud was 12. Present-day Maud’s efforts to solve both of these mysteries are severely hampered by her confused mental state. (One could re-title this novel ‘Miss Marple minus her marbles’ but I would not cast aspersions on that great lady’s name.) This plot device does get a bit frustrating but nevertheless it remains a Genuine Page Turner (actual literary term).
It is also a painful read as, if you remove the mystery element, it is essentially a novel about loss. This elevates the novel beyond the mere whodunit and means it will pass the ‘Can I read this on public transport and still look like a smug intellectual git’ test, which is my barometer for all public displays of reading.
Firstly, it is a novel about how people deal with the loss of loved ones and a bleak reminder that it is a heartache that doesn’t easily, if ever, shift. The parallels between Maud’s essentially OCD behaviour just after Sukey goes missing and years later when she cannot locate Elizabeth made me wonder how on earth she had coped during the seventy years in between. Of the other characters, the portrayal of Maud’s father deserves a special mention, as an openly emotional parent frantically looking for his vanished daughter, rather than a stiff upper lip post-war head of household.
Secondly, it is a novel about the loss of self experienced by an old person trapped in their forgetful brain and ignored by one and all. The interlude with care home escapee Peggy demonstrates this succinctly (they won’t even let her use her own name – no wonder she occasionally does a runner with a bottle of gin) but you see it throughout with Maud, to devastating cumulative effect. The moment where she has to practice her name in her head, and feels ‘humiliated’ when people misunderstand her, broke my heart, and you know things must be grim when she is ‘glad to be singled out’ by Elizabeth’s neighbour’s dog and ‘glad to have found a friend’ in a scruffy canine. I make friends with the street cats of Bromley but I do not rely on them for emotional sustenance. This is why Elizabeth’s friendship is so vital and why Maud is so desperate to find her, as Maud feels that ‘being with Elizabeth is the only time I feel like myself’. It is like entering the brain of an old person and, if you have ever had a slightly forgetful elderly relative then, I warn you, this book will hurt.
However, Maud’s tenacity in looking for the answers to these mysteries, despite the multitude of post-it notes and tinned peaches not helping, is what redeems the novel. The strength of the young girl looking for her sister remains in Maud 70 years later, marbles or no marbles, and this gives us all hope. I might start on the cod liver oil though.