Maud lives in a constant state of befuddlement. Undrunk cups of tea litter her halls; she navigates her way through life with little scraps of paper; she forgets what she’s doing sometimes; and her daughter seems permanently exasperated with her. At 82 years old and suffering with the beginning stages of dementia, she only has three real constants – that she could probably do with another slice of toast, that she’d quite like to know the best place to plant marrows, and that her best friend, Elizabeth is missing. No matter how often her daughter tells her not to worry, Maud just can’t shake the feeling that something terrible has happened to her, and that if she could just keep all the facts together she’d be able to work it all out.
Seeing as neither her family or the police are taking her seriously, Elizabeth attempts an investigation herself. While snooping around her friend’s house or on one of her many trips to the corner shop to buy peaches, she remembers life as a teenager and her sister Sukey’s own disappearance in the 1940’s. The family always suspected her sister’s husband, a wheeling-dealing drunkard with unsavoury connections; but there are several other mysterious characters such as a mad umbrella-wielding old lady with a habit of foraging in bushes, a serial killer that Maud wrote letters to, and a lodger who isn’t who he seems to be.
The book is narrated in a serious of stream-of-consciousness chapters, loaded with circular conversations, peculiar conclusions and slow flashbacks that shed some light on her past. While her current thoughts are muddled, littered with forgotten phrases and dead ends, she lights up when remembering her youth. These sections are detailed and thorough, and she seems almost at home there; instead of the present day with its pierced grandchildren, scolding daughters and empty gaps in time.
It’s a brilliantly realised novel, written with a lot of care and attention to detail. It’s very sad at times, and the last half in particular is hard to get through – and I mean this in a good way. Maud’s general confusion, merged with musty memories and her slow descent into a blank oblivion can and will catch in your throat. Luckily, the novel is also infused with a steady stream of dark but warm humorous touches that manage to break through the dark clouds. Like another debut of 2014, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, this is a superb look at old age and memory in a unique framework, almost feeling like a strange blend of Memento, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Iris.