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From Australian mystery to the doyenne of crime in six steps

six degrees June 2016

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.

Our starting book this month is  Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots.  They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.

A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.

Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.

Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes  and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment. 

Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough.  Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol.  The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his  feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.    

Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.

The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone. 

A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to  look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing. 

And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long. 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

ElizabethThe octogenarian narrator of Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing, cannot remember what she did a few moments ago. Her hallway is littered with cups of tea that she made but forgot to drink; kitchen cupboards overflow with cans of peaches she can’t remember buying. She’s forgotten her daughter’s instruction that it’s not safe for her to go out unaccompanied. At times she even forgets she has a daughter.

But of one thing Maud is certain: she has a friend called Elizabeth that she hasn’t seen or heard from recently. She also remembers she once had an older sister called Sukey who disappeared without trace seventy years ago. Despite Maud’s determined efforts she never discovered what happened to the sister she adored. She is resolved that Elizabeth will not suffer the same fate. For Maud is convinced that her friend is missing and she, Maud, must find where she has gone. The fact she can’t actually remember when exactly she last saw Elizabeth (last week? last year? ) and that no-one else takes her concerns seriously, proves no obstacle in her dogged pursuit of the truth.

As her obsession takes hold, memories of the past flood back for Maud and questions that had puzzled her then about Sukey’s disappearance are re-ignited. Past and present are woven together in this novel as the twin mysteries of the missing women ultimately converge.

As a narrator, Maud is as unreliable as it’s possible to be. Healey’s portrayal of the effects of dementia is however finely observed and apparently owes much to the author’s own family experience. In an interview with the newspaper in her home town of Creetown in Ireland, she explained that the initial inspiration for her book came from observing the confusion and forgetfulness that were the first symptoms of dementia in her paternal grandmother. This isn’t a subject that would naturally lend itself to humour but Healey manages to deftly balance the bleakness by making Maud an irascible figure given to occasional flashes of waspish reflections on how society treats the elderly.

How can we fail to warm to a woman who early in the novel gives us this wry comment on the objects that we all begin collecting as we advance in age:

I keep my spare pair of glasses in it [handbag], I only really need glasses for reading but they make you wear them all the time once you reach a certain age. It’s part of the uniform. How would they know you were an old duffer otherwise? They want you to have the right props so they can tell you apart from people who have the decency to be under seventy. False teeth, hearing aid, glasses. I’ve been given them all.

Care homes come in for some perceptive comments too via a resident who manages to escape for a short while to sit chatting to Maud in a bus shelter:

After a while in there [care home] you lose yourself. I can’t remember what I like or dislike any more. they say “Mrs Mapp doesn’t like peas.” or “Mrs Mapp loves Starbursts.” and then they ask, “thats right isn’t it dear?” and I nod, but I can’t for the life of me remember what peas taste like and I’ve no idea what a Starburst is. Same with TV. They put something on and they say “like this do you?” and I nod. But I couldn’t tell you what the bloody hell its about

Moments of dark humour like this are threaded throughout the first half of the novel.  As Maud’s dementia progresses and her grasp on the present day dissolves, the humour gives way to an appeal for treating sufferers with greater respect.

“I forget things—I know that—but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen [her daughter] rather than listening to what I have to say.”

 It was this mingling of meditation on age and identity with a mystery story and a study in personality that made Elizabeth is Missing such an enjoyable read. For a young person (she is still apparently in her twenties) Healey has shown a remarkable ability to describe the emotional state of a woman approaching her ninetieth year. I enjoyed also the way she plays with genre, giving us a book that is not quite crime but not quite literary fiction. An impressive debut. 


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