I have to admit, they didn’t sound promising as holiday reads, a book about dementia and one about leprosy. But one of them got my first five-star rating for a fiction book this year, and the other nearly did, but fell at the last hurdle.
The five-star read
The five stars go to Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey. I’ve learned to be wary of the ‘must read’ books of the moment, that ‘everyone’ is raving about. I’ve been burned too many times by believing the hype and reading a ‘bestseller’ only to find it weak, wishy-washy or downright woeful. So I’m a bit late to the party with this one. It was on the (extensive) bookcases at the retreat centre I stayed at in Spain last week, so I decided to give it a chance, half-hoping it would be rubbish so I could pick up something else instead. It wasn’t.
Told from the perspective of Maud, a grandmother slipping inexorably into dementia, the novel is both an exploration of that condition, and its fears and frustrations, and a detective story. The eponymous Elizabeth has disappeared from her home. Maud is sure of that. She’s written it down on one of the many slips of paper she keeps in her pockets to help her keep track of the world. The trouble is, no-one seems to believe her. Meanwhile, the story is getting more and more muddled in her head with that of another mysterious disappearance years ago.
It’s incredibly clever how Healey has managed to balance Maud’s increasing confusion with the increasing clarity of the two mysteries – as Maud gets more and more tangled, the mysteries buzzing around in her head gradually untangle for the reader. And while I was frustrated (OK, angry) with Maud’s daughter and her lack of compassion and understanding, I think the depiction of her character was very true to life of many faced with having to provide increasing care for an elderly parent.
All in all, a quick, easy read with a great plot, believable characters (for the most part – I wasn’t 100% convinced by some of the young Maud’s behaviour), and just enough depth to feel really satisfying.
So close, and yet…
Given how scathing I can be of books that don’t meet my high standards (!), it can be somewhat intimidating to recommend things to me. My best friend took the plunge recently, though, and lent me The Island, by Victoria Hislop.
The imagined story of a patient on the last European leper colony, housed on the small island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, The Island follows her family through four generations, from 1939 to 2001. As with many such ‘family saga’ novels, the tale began with a modern day set up, an elaborate excuse for why the story had to be told. I found this set up, and the eventual, inevitable, closing bookend to be by far the weakest parts of the book. They felt unrealistic on many levels and really threatened to undermine what is a great and compelling story.
Hislop has a really good sense of place – such that I was slightly confused, having begun reading it on my flight to Spain, to find I had not landed in Crete after all! I’m sure sitting in the sunshine reading (I resumed it once I’d finished Elizabeth) must have added to the illusion, but I certainly felt as though if I glanced up I would see the cobbled streets of Plaka, Georgoiu’s boat bobbing in the waves by the jetty, and Fotini clearing away raki glasses outside the taverna. It made me want to learn more about Spinalonga, and to visit Crete and Athens, and I like a book that broadens my horizons, and almost makes me feel as if I’d travelled there in person, not just in my imagination.
Fortunately, the pointless, over-dramatic, unrealistic set up only lasts for one chapter, though you will need to read it, I think, to understand the rest of the book. Unfortunately the pointless, under-developed, rushed conclusion is over in three very short chapters, and the book’s opportunity to redeem the opening doesn’t really pay off. I was going to give it 4.5 stars, but the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am by those bookends, so it’s only getting four. Sorry, Victoria Hislop!
And an added bonus
Just before I went away I finished another book that I enjoyed far more than its subject matter suggested I might.
The Girl at the End of the Road is another first novel (all three of these have been!), and on one level is another ‘issues’ book, this time looking at autism. To be honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy it. I have to confess here to a bit of prejudice: I knew the author was a Christian, and I wasn’t familiar with the publisher, so thought it was self-published. The combination of these things – first novel, Christian novel, self-published – sets off big alarm bells for me. I was expecting a trite story, poorly written and edited, with a neat ending where the main character becomes a Christian and, hey presto, all his problems disappear.
I was wrong on every count.
Sure it’s a ‘guy loses everything and has to reassess his priorities, and a pretty girl makes him see things in a new way’ kind of plot, but it’s much richer than that. It’s not easy and neat. There are other threads to the story, a bigger cast of characters, all of whom have their own lives and stories going on, and are not just props for our main character, Vincent’s, development. It felt as though he was living in a real world, and in that sense it wasn’t easy to predict the ending. In fact, there wasn’t really a neat ending. There was a point of resolution, but you knew the characters’ lives would continue after you had closed the book. And no-one became a Christian, though God did get a look in once or twice.
I’m giving this one 4.5 stars. I can’t quite put my finger on why it’s not a five for me – it was good, compelling, interesting etc, etc, but it just hasn’t quite left me with the urge to press it into my friends’ hands saying, ‘You have to read this book!’ And it bothers me that the traffic light on the cover has the green at the top. I’m sure it must mean something, but I don’t know what!
It’s well worth a read, but I’d go for Elizabeth is Missing first.
Image: El Palmeral retreat centre