My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Dr. Jennifer White is losing her mind. Literally. Her brain’s cells and blood vessels are decaying, coating the vibrant organ of her consciousness with clumps of dying and dead tissue. This brilliant woman – an orthopedic surgeon, mother of two grown children, and a recent widow – is losing her mind to dementia.
I began Turn of Mind an hour before bedtime and finished it shortly after breakfast the next day. In between I slept, swam, showered, and ate my oatmeal, but I devoted all other moments to turning the pages of this astonishing, wrenching book.
The narrative is relayed through Jennifer and via the notebook in which her caretaker, Magdalena, her children Mark and Fiona, and her friends and colleagues record their conversations with and observations of this vibrant woman whose light is dimming under the cloud of Alzheimer’s. In the first pages, the novel’s structure was off-putting. When I flipped through and saw that the entire book was a series of short paragraphs at most, with pages of one line sentences, I doubted its ability to hold me with a story of complete characters and compelling plot. But that doubt was quickly dispelled.
Alice LaPlante displays masterful writing by using her primary character’s point of view to show the horror of dementia. As readers we are not passive observers of Jennifer’s disintegration. We are in her head, seeing through her eyes, feeling her confusion as reality wavers like a room filled with fun house mirrors. LaPlante allows us to laugh, as Jennifer pokes fun at her disease (Top 10 Signs You Know You Have Alzheimer’s, #2: You keep discovering new rooms in your house). We are Jennifer as she cunningly slips past her minders to have barefoot adventures in her Chicago neighborhood, not feeling the cold, not fearing strangers who loom from the darkness, not minding that we don’t have money to pay for the meal we have somehow eaten at an Italian restaurant. We feel both outrage at and empathy for her children, who take advantage of their mother’s diminished awareness, yet who also try to protect her. The conversations Mark and Fiona have with Jennifer, when they know she will not remember what was said, are sometimes terrible, sometimes hilarious, and always heartbreaking.
Propping up the story like a cold steel bar is its central plot conflict: the unsolved murder of Jennifer’s neighbor and best friend, Amanda. The investigation of Amanda’s death is never far from anyone’s mind, except Jennifer’s, who has to be told over and over that Amanda is dead. Their history unfolds in fleeting memories that knit together to show a complicated, often adversarial, relationship between two intelligent and strong-willed women.
I am in awe of a writer who can combine a complicated topic that demands extensive research with a classic murder mystery, present it in a jarring, atypical format using the voice of an unreliable narrator, and still create a multi-dimensional story of fully realized characters in a mere 300 pages. I can’t wait to see where Alice LaPlante takes us next.