When the Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist was announced back in March, I was surprised at how few of them I’d read given how interesting the titles all looked. (True confession: I hadn’t read a single one.) I’m determined to read ten of the titles before the winner is announced on June 3rd.
Some of the titles on the list have obvious competition from other titles on the list: Station Eleven vs. The Country of Ice Cream Star would be an epic battle of dystopian narratives, for example. (Though I’m not sure which title should take on The Bees.)
It just so happens that two of the first titles I read both feature a particular favourite of mine: the unreliable narrator. Let the battle begin!
Our narrator: 80-year old Maud is convinced her best friend Elizabeth is missing. Nevermind that her daughter and caregiver don’t believe her.
Why she is unreliable: Bit by bit Maud is losing her memory. She holds onto information the best she can on scraps of paper, but the past — in which Maud’s sister Sukey disappeared and was never found — looms larger than the present.
What keeps you reading: Sure we all want to find out what happened to Elizabeth and Sukey, but the true allure of the book lies in the narration. Maud is perceptive enough to know she can’t trust herself, and enough of a spitfire to keep trying to make sense of the world.
Our narrator: Madeline is an adult who was raised in a very religious Christian family. She is also the longtime resident of Lentham Park: a psychiatric facility.
Why she is unreliable: Madeline had a mental breakdown when she turned fourteen. She has amnesia surrounding the events the lead up to her breakdown.
What keeps you reading: The story jumps back and forth in time between the year before Madeline’s breakdown, and her life in Lentham Park. A new doctor assigned to Madeline’s case believes that he can cure her amnesia, and that she could possibly be released. Can he? What will he discover?
I have to say that I really enjoyed both books, and look forward to reading McCleen’s other titles, but Elizabeth is Missing wins this battle. In Maud’s world everyday life becomes noir because of her failing memory, making this book much stronger than its big reveal.